Sail Away with Ellen Bradley

October 13, 2022

(highlights from Episode #12 of the Gutsiest Brands podcast)

Check out the latest lessons from our Gutsiest Brands podcast as GutCheck’sCEO, Rob Wengel, sits down with PR and marketing maven, Ellen Bradley. They discuss making gutsy marketing decisions like choosing to market a lifestyle and experiences instead of focusing on the product, finding the right lens to speak to your audience through, and why being real is the key to success. 

Ellen is Chief Brand Officer and Head of Communications for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the leading trade association for recreational boat and marine accessory makers in North America. Their mission is to not only support the businesses they represent, but also pique the interests of consumers to make boating the number one recreational activity.  

Here’s a glimpse of how Ellen found her way from a degree in journalism, to working in communications in the entertainment and casino space, to manning the helm in the boating industry, and her advice to marketers. 

Takeaway #1 Discover the Common Thread

Ellen’s trade association represents everything from single-person kayaks to large yachts – in her words, “Anything you can get into from $500 all the way up to $5MM and more.” With such a broad audience to market to, they decided to take the focus away from the product itself, and put it on the experience it offers instead. “It feels a little bit daunting to try to wrap your head around ‘how do you build a brand for an activity?’” Ellen says. “Thinking about that full product group, thinking about the different types of people that use those different products and the different types of lifestyles…how we can effectively engage [that] audience that is quite broad and do it in a way that’s going to resonate.” Ellen discovered that “when you learn about people who buy boatsyou learn that they all have an inherent interest in being outdoors, being active. Outdoor recreation is that thread that runs through them.” By finding this common thread between consumers, Ellen and her team were able to develop a campaign approach that would speak to everyone in their audience, uniting them through experiences created by the product instead of the product itself.  

Takeaway #2 Find a Lens to Speak to Your Audience 

“A word that came up, no matter which group we talked to, was freedom,” says Ellen. When Ellen’s team asked boaters to send in pictures of what boating meant to them, they were surprised to receive no photos of boats or even people on boats. Instead, the photos were of birds, people, and even trampolines – what Ellen describes as evoking “a sense of freedom”. The team realized “each person had their own interpretation and their own definition of what freedom meant to them. So, we took that, and we used that to build a campaign that could talk to all these different groups through this lens of freedom and what that feels like.” Though there has been pushback over the lack of boats in their boating advertisements, Ellen and her team stand behind their gutsy and bold decision to focus “in on individual people and their boating stories and their moments versus the types of boats that they use.” The Discover Boating campaign has been fantastic for the industry – they’ve seen a 30% rise in traffic since the launch of the campaign. 

Takeaway #3 Attract Consumers with Community 

One part of marketing a product or an experience is building a strong and loyal community. To Ellen, boating provides a community where people are brought together for a common purpose. “Even now, with how heightened the political space has been and how emotional people find themselves given whatever side of the aisle that they sit… when you’re on the water, that doesn’t exist. Nobody’s angry. Nobody’s pointing fingers. It’s like you don’t care what’s going on. You wave to all the fellow boaters on the water, and there’s just this breakdown of any kind of stress. You’re just there to connect with other people, have fun, [and] relax.” Ellen says that “capturing that freedom and that community really has been a way for us to break through.” Ellen stresses that if you want a product or experience to resonate, marketers need to find the community that cares about it and help spread their passion to others. 

Takeaway #4 – Tell Your Users’ Stories

When it came to the people featured in their Discover Boating campaign, Ellen didn’t want to use actors or models because she knew the audience would be able to tell, and she wanted to engage in a truly authentic way. “[Boaters] have this whole social community that they spend time with, all because of boating. We wanted to show real people. We’re talking to the next generation [of boaters]”. So, Ellen built their campaign around real water enthusiasts, from a young college fisherman to a seasoned underwater photographer. In the association, “there was definitely a little bit of hesitancy around that because it wasn’t the traditional boating story that we had told. Diverting that required that we led with the data and led with the research...We stated the challenge that we faced and we stated the solution and how we were going to address that. The result? A campaign that their core audience and next generation target audience could relate to.

Ellen‘s Best Advice?

Be real and do what’s right. One of the things that we say on our team is we have to be really real with ourselves. I know that whenever we’ve tried to do something that maybe isn’t really us, it’s backfired. And so we have to spend a lot of time thinking about, is this us? Is this who we are? And ask ourselves that question [even for something] as basic as a social post. Everybody across the team thinks through that lens. Being real is, I think, a really fantastic place to start. Ellen also reflects on another brand that has been successful by being real and doing what’s right. “Brands that really do the right thing in a moment of crisis or a moment of uncertainty, and who take that risk and say ‘this is who we are’, that is, I think, one of the gutsiest things that a brand can do...your customer is going to recognize that, and that’s going to be what gets them engaged.” 

Keep Learning 

Catch up on Rob and Ellen’s full interview by listening to the Gutsiest Brands podcast. If you are interested in how your brand can uncover the deep customer insights that can enable you to lead with empathy, pioneer new paths, stand behind bold ideas, and lean into ‘the power of AND’, we’d love to help. Drop us a note!

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