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IFTD / ICAST Brand Lessons, Part I: Crossing Over the Divide

Photo of tradeshow

Since returning from IFTD/ICAST, I’ve had several people ask me how it went. I tell them it’s a good thing you can’t buy products on the show floor because my house would have a third mortgage on it.

The rods I cast, like Radian from Scott and Salt from Sage, had me reaching for my wallet, despite the $800+ price tag. Thanks to a quick demo from the guys at TFO, Tenkara went, in my mind, from fly-fishing’s yuppie version of Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman to a viable, fun and ultralight approach to fishing when backpacking. Cortland’s new Trout Boss HTx feels like greased lightning on a spool. Nautilus is making superlight reels that stand up and stand out. Companies like NuCanoe and Old Town are rethinking how we hit the water and how sporting watercraft can crossover to effectively improve fishing. And, not surprisingly, both Simms and Fishpond showed once again how endlessly imaginative they are at finding ways to improve our time on the water — cooler designs, higher performing fabrics, common sense organization, bomb-proof construction, you name it.

So, yeah, like a cutthroat awash in Mothers Day caddis, I rose often and lusted for more. Impressive as it was, though, the gear isn’t what stands out to me as I look back on Orlando — two critical marketing and branding issues do.

The first is the potential and desire for brands to crossover between fly and conventional fishing. The second is the increasingly important role corporate responsibility programs play in shaping brand. In this two-part blog, I’ll address each of these, along with some thoughts on how brands can take advantage of each.

Let’s Start with Crossing Over the Divide.

The divide of church and state (as in conventional and fly-fishing) is narrowing. The show floor in Orlando is shared by IFTD and ICAST, so it naturally puts fly and conventional fishing side by side, but thanks to a rising tide of anglers who pack their boats, closets and garages with gear of all types, the result isn’t so much like setting a tabby next to a Rottweiler as one might think. In fact, one of the underlying currents of the show was, “How do I get my brand to appeal to those guys over there?” I had several conversations with marketing managers about this very topic. People who were doing well with one set of anglers and wanted to extend that success to a different vertical — often one that crossed over the conventional / fly divide.

Crossover success is, of course, predicated on having the right products. A boat bag that works for fly fishing on my home waters in Montana isn’t the same one that works for fly fishing on the flats of Ascension Bay, let alone throwing crank baits to the largemouth patrolling Table Rock Reservoir in southern Missouri. And no amount of advertising or brand messaging will make it so. Also, you need more than a single offering. A line of products suited to the vertical you’re trying to reach is far more powerful than a one-off for establishing credibility with a new market. But the right products don’t necessarily mean you’ll succeed. How you position your brand also matters.

I believe preparing your brand to crossover begins by looking at the values anglers share. As you can see here in our Pre-ICAST report, anglers fish to experience memorable moments on the water, whether that’s casting on a flat at sunset or seeing a vicious take on a popper. They want to relax in beautiful places, to be with friends and family, to invest in products that perform on day 1,000 like they did back on day one. In those ways we are all alike regardless of whether we fish with a fly rod, spinning rod, ice rod or our bare hands.

A brand has the power to speak to these shared values through images, words and most convincingly, its behavior. Brands whose products, attitudes and behaviors reflect those timeless values and fulfill the practical needs of a given type of angler can crossover successfully. There are many great examples within fishing and outside of it. With that in mind, here are the first three things you should invest in to prepare for a successful crossover:

FIRSTHAND KNOWLEDGE:  It isn’t enough to think you know what a pike angler wants, you need to find out. To do that, start by making friends with noncompeting manufacturers, as well as retailers who are doing well in the space you’re after. For example, if you make gear bags for fly anglers and want to reach out to conventional pike fishermen, get with a lure company that’s killing it in the pike market. Find out what they’d want in a bag.

Next conduct some planning groups with manufacturers reps and retailers to help you determine what will sell and how best to sell it. These group discussions can help you quickly understand the market — everything from the timing of product releases to needs not currently being fulfilled to aesthetic taste differences.

CONSUMER INSIGHT: Test what you learn from the trade with consumers directly to develop insight into what they want from gear and to better understand what they know about your brand. To do that, create a targeted survey that includes product, brand and behavioral questions. This doesn’t have to be expensive (we’ve used SurveyMonkey Audience successfully). It just has to be relevant to your products and brand and solicit a large enough response to provide you with valid insight.

Focus not only on what consumers want, but on what they perceive is missing in the category. Be sure you can slice and dice the data across a variety of demographics, too. You may find that your brand image has strong appeal to one segment over another — for example women anglers or younger, more athletic anglers. That has implications for where and how you market, and can help you break through in a new category more cost-effectively by marketing to a niche demographic.

RETOOL YOUR BRAND MESSAGE: Take the insight you’ve learned and go back to your brand messaging. Does it fit? If it doesn’t readily appeal to the values you’ve uncovered in the survey work, it probably needs retooling. Look specifically for language that may speak to species or water type or a given demographic. Don’t just expunge this language, but think about how your promise as a brand can and does appeal to the new market you seek and rewrite it.

Then look at how you express that promise — words, colors, images, icons. Do they speak to your desired market? Can your messages address the practical and emotional needs of your new audience? Are you connecting why you make fishing gear with why they fish?

Too often, brands try to crossover cosmetically. “Hey, let’s change the trout silhouette to a bass silhouette and make the shirt red instead of green!” While that may be part of the change, it isn’t enough. Consumers can taste authenticity in products and brand the way a 10-pound walleye tastes it in a real, wiggling shad vs. a rubber one.

From a brand perspective, taking these three steps is essential to effectively crossing over, whether that’s from reels to rods, freshwater to salt, fly to conventional or fishing to outdoor lifestyle.

One final factor to consider? Cost. Know that if you’re going from a relatively small market like fly-fishing to a bigger market like conventional bass fishing, the cost will increase dramatically from a media and outreach perspective. Ad pages cost more, search words will be harder and more expensive to buy, the time you’ll put into PR and social media will increase, your Web presence will need to be rethought, and so on. Be sure you’re funding the move appropriately. Shoestring efforts and half measures rarely work. There are media tactics and strategies to deploy that can minimize the expense — such as starting at a regional level — but that’s an article in and of itself. So we’ll save that for another time.

Looking back on the show, it feels like the potential (and desire) to crossover has never been greater among fishing brands. It also feels like crossing over and reaching out beyond the fishing community (paddle board fishing, anyone?) has the potential to attract new people to the sport. But capitalizing on that potential requires more than looking lustily across the aisle at IFTD/ICAST and thinking, “Those dudes should be buying our stuff!” It requires understanding those consumers and why they’d want to connect with your brand in the first place. Once you know that, you can shape a brand that not only attracts them, but feeds the passion they feel for the sport. That’s a crossover success.

You can read Part II, “On Your Best Behavior,” at this link.

2 thoughts on “IFTD / ICAST Brand Lessons, Part I: Crossing Over the Divide

  1. Sean,

    Thank you for an insightful piece. Costa, who was started by offshore fisherman 31 years ago, has been successful at bridging the gap to fly, bass, and inshore (conventional) fishing. The key in Costa’s case is staying. Even with our latest GeoBass project, which we debut episodes at Bassmaster events, we show how our brand works in that space, bringing that Costa edge and adventure to BASS.

    I’m looking forward to part 2.

    1. Thanks, Pete. Costa is a great example of a company that crosses over well in many ways (and not just between fishing communities). Moreover, I think in your case that crossover actually improves credibility with the niche audiences you’ve added along the way.

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