The CMO Interview

Airstream Selling Premium RVs in a Recession

Marketing Chief Sue Dooley Talks With Ad Age About Raising the Profile of These Cherished Silver Rides

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Airstream marketing chief Sue Dooley
Airstream marketing chief Sue Dooley

NEW YORK ( -- Seated in an $80,000 International Serenity Airstream RV, Sue Dooley is talking about stripper poles.

Since the Airstream VP-marketing joined the company 18 months ago, she is looking to reconfigure its target demographic and elevate the status of the iconic company via partnerships with brands and celebrities like Mercedes-Benz, Bloomingdale's, Matthew McConaughey and Steve Carrell. (That's where the stripper pole comes in; Pam Anderson once owned a tricked-out Airstream equipped with one.)

To leverage a marketing budget under seven figures, Ms. Dooley, who comes from the footwear industry, is aiming to find the right partners. "It's a delicate balance making sure we reach our consumer groups," Ms. Dooley said. "So we look for partnerships that are going to help us move the needle within those groups."

Ms. Dooley said Airstream's biggest competition comes from people looking for second homes or high-end adventure travel packages as well as old Airstreams. The company has around 300 employees, the majority of them working in its only manufacturing plant in Jackson Center, Ohio.

Ms. Dooley met with Ad Age at an RV dealership in Lakewood, N.J., Airstream's most successful dealership in the U.S., to talk social media, providing better assistance to dealerships, the passionate RV community, partnerships and the connection between the RV market and the economy.

Ad Age: How bad was the RV market hit during the recession?

Ms. Dooley: The U.S. economy follows suit with the RV industry so we were hit very badly. Airstream is a luxury item and financing, not only for consumers but for our dealerships, proved to be a huge problem. A lot of dealerships went out of business but those that were financially sound were able to survive and invest in inventory.

Ad Age: What marketing adjustments had to be made?

Ms. Dooley: In the footwear and apparel background you're spending, on average, 8% to 10% of sales on marketing. In the RV market it's 1% to 2%. Historically the industry has not spent a lot of money on marketing. It does work in aggregate on a campaign like "Go RVing," which is put together by the Recreational Vehicle Association. But in general not many RV brands do a lot of marketing. Airstream, to some degree, is considered an exception. But when you look at those numbers -- Airstream being 1% of market share and then only spending 1% to 2% of sales -- we're not spending a lot on advertising. We spend our time on PR and partnerships and, something that I know has to be a higher priority for us, helping dealerships move units with real retail-driven marketing.

Ad Age: What does your marketing mix look like?

Ms. Dooley: There is zero paid advertising. There's a heavy influence of PR, a lot of partnerships and product placement is big. But it's never a situation where we pay to have our products appear in a movie or TV show. People want our product because there's nothing else out there like it so if they want it we'll give it to them under the right circumstance but we don't do paid product placement.

Ad Age: Is there an area you'd like to increase your marketing efforts in, like digital?

Something that's been absent for a number of years is an emphasis on digital. We are digitizing all of our consumer surveys and building databases so we can engage consumers digitally. We're also expanding our social-media mix. And we're doing what we need to do to support our dealers in terms of creating a dealer network that has all of the information they need to effectively sell this product.

Ad Age: How exactly are you expanding your social-media mix?

Ms. Dooley: We're launching a new website at the end of November and it will be completely integrated with social-media platforms. We have the benefit of having a very passionate RV community. They are passionate both online and offline so it gives us the opportunity to engage with them, learn from them and hear what's good and bad about our product, about our brand image and solicit consumer feedback on product ideas.

Ad Age: Does Airstream and the RV industry have an image problem with people thinking the product may not be for them?

Ms. Dooley: I'm sure there was at one point but it's been pretty easy to tap into this group now, especially with the help of partner brands that allow us to elevate our status. We're a premium product three times the average retail price of a traditional RV and it's a brand that attracts a unique consumer compared to the rest of the industry. However, on a macro level, people are returning to a sense of simplicity and doing what's important in their lives like spending time with family. And that fits nicely with the RV lifestyle.

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The CMO Interview: Sue Dooley, VP-marketing, Airstream
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