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Calls for the industry to mount a national PR and advertising campaign extolling the health benefits of aquatic exercise and immersion have been heard for decades. Yet for all of those good intentions, such a campaign has never come close to becoming a reality.
Now, however, leaders in the hot water industry are coalescing around a wellness message, raising the prospect of finding a collective voice through other means. According to some industry insiders, the solution may be to discard the idea of a "Got Milk" type of national campaign in favor of more focused efforts on the local/dealer level.
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One of those in the know is AQUA's Stan Chambers, the magazine's Western advertising sales manager. An industry veteran dating back to the early '70s, Chambers has long identified with the hot water industry and witnessed its many attempts to promote spas.
"The problem is that a national campaign costs tens of millions of dollars. This has been going on a long time; every five years someone in the industry or at the trade associations would say that we're wasting our time advertising to ourselves and that we need start devoting our resources to a consumer advertising campaign," he says. "Those are often the national companies who are trying to advance the industry across the country, but in truth, with so many small companies in the industry the resources have never really been there."
Chris Robinson, business manager for Lucite Acrylic Surfaces, an OEM supplier for raw materials used to manufacturer portable spas, agrees that the sheer scale of a national campaign is out of step with both the size and character of the market.
"A national advertising campaign like we've seen from the dairy and pork industries is probably not going to happen because of the tremendous amount of money you'd need," he says. "Most of the competition within the industry takes place on the dealer level, which is where the marketing and promotion of the benefits and the experience really takes place."
A big part of the problem, Chambers says, is that the industry has been comprised of a handful of big players with a much larger number of small companies, many of which have a more regional focus and are disinclined to contribute to a national branding effort. "The obstacle," he says, "is you'd have five or six large companies who would commit to contributing, but then there'd be 30 smaller companies that are just shirt-tailing and not contributing anything. It breeds resentment. When you have a just a few people doing the heavy lifting and the other guys in the room are really just passengers on the deal, it just starts to unravel."
"I don't think you're going to get participation unless your business has a national scope," Robinson adds. "If you look at RVs, they sell their products nationally. That's not the case for most spa manufacturers. Most are still regional and there's no real motivation or self interest for buying into a national campaign. If you sell only 10 percent of your product on the east coast and 90 percent in the west, you're not going to devote resources to market the product in areas where you're not really selling your product. So a lot of it has to do with the national scale. Even the biggest companies are still mostly focusing their efforts and resources on regional markets."
Shelly Roberts, senior manager of marketing content for Watkins Wellness, believes that ahead of forming the message, people within the industry should first make sure they understand the compelling message of the wellness benefits.
"As an industry, the reason we haven't done that collectively probably comes down to the fact that we just haven't been able to get on the same page," she says. "It's expensive and maybe people don't want to put money in the till just for category awareness when they're fighting for brand awareness on a regional or local level. I would ask the question: Are we all on the same page about the wellness benefits of hot tubs? I would question that because not everyone is using that information as a platform."
For Watkins' part, the company took the extraordinary step of renaming and rebranding its company around the concept of wellness. According to Roberts, establishing the brand as a source of wellness is evidence of its long-term commitment to the concept over the long haul.
"We've focused our efforts on driving awareness both category and brand awareness through what we know to be true, being the wellness benefits of our products," she says. "We started down that path when we saw research that said spending time relaxing isn't enough, it's not a compelling enough message on its own — we have to find something broader. We've seen a number of players in the industry turn a corner and say, 'Now it's time to look at wellness.'
"We're not doing it because it's a trend," she adds. "We're doing it because it's really how we feel about our product. It's part of our corporate DNA here at Watkins."
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As more companies large and small embrace the wellness message, combined with greater consumer awareness, ongoing research and consolidation within the market, it begs the question as to whether or not the industry has reached a breakthrough moment in promoting the benefits to the general public.
"I think it's evolved to where many people are more sophisticated about the benefits and how this product can truly help improve lives," Robinson says. "I think that's all part of why we've seen a huge expansion in the swim spa business. It used to be thought of as just a place to swim in a small space, which itself is a wonderful benefit, but there's much more to it than that. There's all the different activities and equipment such as exercise bikes, or treadmills or even rowing machines. You can use a swim spa to exercise, cool off, or you can heat it up and use it like a traditional spa. When you combine all those things with the relaxation and pleasure of hotwater we've got something that offers a range of positive experiences."
Going forward, Roberts believes that the best investment in promotion would be further research on the benefits, which although increasing in recent years remains comparatively thin.
"We've found that research is fairly limited because most research is funded by drug companies who are not going to pay to support a study to disavow the use of drugs," she says. "Doing a national campaign around a wellness message has to be based on claims that can be supported by clinical research. It would be impactful to get together to fund the messaging that would mainstream our products. Maybe we could pool our resources to do some definitive research?"
As for the question of a national advertising campaign, those interviewed for this discussion believe that even with consolidation of the market, the sheer scale will for now at least keep the idea at arm's distance. But in the absence of an expensive advertising campaign, there are other ways to promote a unified message, especially by supporting efforts on the dealer level.
"If you want to circumvent the idea of doing a national advertising campaign, then there's the idea of a campaign to arm the industry with the necessary information," Chambers says. "There's the idea of a co-op advertising campaign where you have the collateral materials to assist in local advertising in a particular area. That might extend to working more closely with dealers to spread the word at fairs and home shows where you connect face to face with the consumer."
"I think it's all about education combined with the right message," Robinson says. "You tie your brand to the message. Then you need to provide that information down the dealer chain. If you have the right information backed up by good research, then you can tap into the customer base. But it's got to all hang together and it always comes down to the fact that you're not selling a product; you're selling an experience. If you drive that message consistently, then you'll reach the consumers and they'll come in the store.
"You're an experience store," he adds. "That's why I think it's all about brand, message and education, much more so than anything else."
Whatever form promotional efforts take, Roberts believes that ultimately industry members themselves must first embrace the message. "It's a mission and we breathe it daily in our company," she says. "We transform people's lives, especially if you use our product on a daily basis. You're giving yourself the capacity to contend with daily life — all the challenges we face —because you took the time to care for yourself."
A large part of promoting the hot water industry ultimately means creating products that meet consumer expectations and ultimately forge an emotional connection with users. In recent years, manufacturers have continued to develop spa models with features designed to enhance the consumer experience, including LED lighting, aromatherapy, audio/visual systems and water features.
Robinson has answered that call with a keen focus on the emotional impact of color. The company currently is promoting "Experience the Color," a program of carefully chosen and named colors based on extensive research including information from the Color Marketing Group, which forecasts consumer trends in color preferences.
"We've learned that color can have a tremendous impact on how people feel about purchasing and ultimately using the product," he says. "Ultimately everything we do is about creating and experience. That's the business we're in; the entire industry is about experience. We've found that color is an important component in creating products that people feel good about using on a daily basis."
For longer than I care to admit, the design snob in me has looked down my snooty snout on portable spas, or hot tubs, depending on the preferred terminology. (For this discussion I'll use my favorite term: "spas.") By whatever label, portable vessels that contain hot water were for many years more of a clunky appliance than part of the landscape, at least to my eyes.
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