There's a little-known product offered by the pool and hot tub industry that has the potential to become a popular item as the population ages. Lots of manufacturers make them, but for most dealers — if they sell them at all — they represent a small portion of their businesses. Ask a random person off the street about them and you're likely to get a blank stare. This mysterious aquatic product that's not quite a hot tub, not quite a pool and not quite a treadmill is a swim spa.

One of the challenges that the industry faces is creating a strong message about what a swim spa actually is and the benefits that it offers. Kerry Eubanks of Leisure Concepts in Madison, Wis., says lots of customers just aren't aware of the swim spa category, but they are receptive to the idea. "Once people understand the health benefits, they are into it," he says. "The sauna and the swim spa are both very misunderstood. I think maybe the single most important thing the manufacturers could do would be to go full speed [advertising to] the medical industry. At least for us, that's who is buying them."

Manufacturers and dealers face a weighty task with swim spas. For most who manufacturer these units, hot tubs and/or fiberglass pools comprise the bulk of their sales. Swim spas are a small portion of their product offerings, and they simply don't have the resources to devote to an all-out swim spa marketing effort. Likewise, dealers face the same problem of proportionality. Both tend to treat the swim spa as an oversize cousin of their hot tubs, or the smaller sibling of their fiberglass pools. In a perfect world, swim spas would have their own product managers, marketing plans and advertising identities. That's unlikely, but there is still much to learn from marketing experts and their best-case scenarios.

Perfect-World Plans

"The most important thing for people to realize is that any time you're trying to market an idea, concept or product, the way you make that idea important to someone is to make it relevant," says Mike Bawden, president and CEO of Brand Central Station, a global marketing consultancy with offices in New York City. "There needs to be a relationship created. The best way to do that is familiarizing people with information about that product, finding those connection points and building on those."

But what's relevant to one person is not relevant to another. Unless you first identify and study an audience, you'll end up with a message that suits the lowest common denominator. That type of message is usually forgettable and the product starts to take on the characteristics of a commodity. "The problem with marketing a product as 'one size fits all' is that people tend not to believe it," says Bawden. "Everyone likes to have a sense of their own individuality and that there's something about them that makes them special. So how could one solution be the right solution for everybody? It doesn't make sense. You end up not making any sort of relevance and not forming any sort of relationship between the people and the product."

Rob Frankel's clients seek him out for help in clarifying their messages. "Ninety-nine percent of my clients — in any category — think that all they have to do is put their product out there and everyone will think it's as wonderful as they do," says the branding expert and author of The Revenge Of Brand X: How to Build a Big Time Brand on the Web or Anywhere Else.

"'It makes coffee! It's a breath mint! It does your floors! It does everything.' They keep trying to make it everything to everyone, when they need to be doing the opposite," he says. "If you make it everything to everyone, it's nothing to anybody. And no one can tell whether it's fish or fowl. When you have this kind of positioning, people don't know what to make of it, so they move on.

"The problem is that clients are afraid to commit to one brand attribute and lead with that for fear of losing the market. But the way that it works is, when you become the specialist in a particular thing, you become the authority in it. Better to become the authority and make things clear to a smaller-but-buying audience than to be an everyman who appeals to no one."

Bawden concurs: "You can build a product that you think is good for everybody and you can market it kind of like white bread. And as long as you're the only one in the market, you're going to meet with a modicum of success. There are some people who are going to identify implied benefits and buy your product as a result, kind of in spite of your marketing.

"The problem is that if you run into a competitor who takes your product and does it one better, and is clear and specific in how they present those product benefits, and does a good job of crafting relevant messages, they're going to take market share away from you because you haven't done anything to form a bond with customers. And that's true whether you're talking about white bread or swim spas."

"The other big problem for manufacturers is that if they don't create a strong relationship with the customer, they're cutting their own throats in terms of margin," adds Bawden. "Because the only thing left, then, that a customer has to compare one product against another, is price. So you're always going to end up defaulting to products that come in at a lower price. One thing that's been proven time and time again is that if you can create a strong consumer preference for a product — and that's the essential measurement of brand loyalty — you can protect your margins."

Reality Check

Even without a big marketing budget, swim spa manufacturers and dealers can target their messages with common sense and observation. It may seem counterintuitive, but the first thing to consider is the consumer, not the product: Whom are you trying to reach with your message. "You always start from the core and build out," says Harvey Briggs, executive vice president, BrandNEXT new product development at Lindsay, Stone & Briggs, a brand-development firm. "So, who are the core buyers of the brand, what are the functional benefits, what are the emotional benefits that we want to get across, and in some cases, social benefits. How do people see me when they know I have or use this type of product?"

Begin by identifying the target consumer. Starting with the obvious, it's clear that the cost of a swim spa disqualifies a good portion of the public. Space requirements and home ownership narrow the field even further. But that's still a lot of people who may have nothing else in common. Robert J. Lawton, director of sports market development and residential sales for SwimEx in Warren, R.I., has identified three distinct groups of customers. "The typical customer is probably 45-plus and is fitness-oriented," he says. "You have several different things going on. You have a fitness-oriented type person, you have a person who has some medical issues, whether it's from an outside influence like an accident or maybe it's arthritis, maybe it's a disease — that group of people. And then you have just your pure swimmers."

John Hirschler of The Spa Shop in Mandeville, La., sells most of his swim spas to women who want to use them for water aerobics. "That's probably the main clientele," he says. "I have sold a couple to people who run triathlons, but the majority of them really go to older women."

In Wisconsin, Eubanks sells most of his swim spas to people who use them for therapy. "I would say the vast majority are people who have been in a car accident or have something like fibermyalgia or some kind of arthritic condition," he says. "We're selling probably 90 percent to people who are buying them for some type of longterm, never-ending rehabilitation."

And that makes sense. As the health- and fitness-conscious Baby Boomers start to feel the aches and pains of their years, they will demand solutions just as they have throughout their consumer lives. "The [swim spa] category is on the upward swing," says Lawton, who is also a certified athletic trainer. "As the Baby Boom generation moves toward retirement, they're going to be looking for ways to keep fit, lose weight, ward off disease. And all those things point to aquatic therapy being a great fix for them."

Add to the mix the Baby Boomers' love of convenience, and you have a great recipe for a swim spa buyer.

"Usually they have been going into a public pool or back into the hospital or somewhere three days a week or four days a week, or every day," says Eubanks. "They get in their car, they drive somewhere. If they don't do it, then they get all stiff and they can't move and they get sore. And they realize it's not going away, it's going to be long-term, and they think, 'I need to do something different.'"

Eubanks has found that most of his buyers come across the swim spa solution on their own. "In fact, I've been thinking I need to make some connections in the physical therapy departments of the local hospitals and hand out some brochures. It would be good for them, too, because they want to help their patients. And if they have patients that can afford it, and need it, why not tell them about it."

Indeed, aquatic therapy has become a bigger part of the mix in physical therapy and rehab, according to Lawton. "Just in my four years here, we've had a major increase in [physical therapists] telling us that physicians want their patients to have water therapy. Typically with water therapy, you can get involved sooner than you can on land, and we all pretty much know now that the sooner we can begin to rehabilitate an injured body part, the faster we're going to get better and the more effective we're going to be. It used to be, 'put 'em in a cast and wait for eight weeks before we do anything.' Now we want to be aggressive because we know that it works better."

In the real world, is it feasible to devote the marketing-communication dollars that would be required to research and deliver the message as the experts suggest. Not for everyone. But where it's possible, it may be profitable to heed their advice in a smaller way. Think about who your likely swim spa customers are, and make sure you are communicating to them. Better yet, make sure your name is known by professionals who may recommend aquatic therapy to their clients. Aiming at a specific target is usually more effective than throwing an enormous net and keeping your fingers crossed.

Swim Spa Speculation

John Hirschler of The Spa Shop in Mandeville, La., has found a worthwhile niche market for swim spas in the ultraluxury world. He's recently sold units to a high-end builder. "I have a builder in a really exclusive subdivision that's starting to spec them in, so that's going to help us," he says. Repeat sales to a home builder is more efficient than the same number of sales to individual homeowners. Plus, installation can be easier and more flexible.

Even less common than the homebuilder is a shipbuilder who installs swim spas. "We do a lot of work with a yacht builder here in New Orleans, and we have a bid in right now for a 200-foot yacht, they're going to put one on it," says Hirschler. "That's very rare."

—K.P.