Polaris mobilizes $8 mil print, TV effort

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Polaris Industries uses a new print and TV effort to position its snowmobiles as an escape for stressed-out consumers.

Themed "The way out," the estimated $8 million effort from Martin/Williams, Minneapolis, breaks today in snowmobiling magazines and in spot TV in October. It also will be the umbrella theme for the power sport manufacturer's line of all-terrain vehicles and personal watercraft.

"It's a major change in the direction of our company," said Tom Tiller, CEO, Polaris, who joined the company in 1998 as president-chief operating officer from General Electric Co. "For 46 years we've sold our products under the idea of selling a better mousetrap, but now we're really changing the basic proposition of selling products to the customer as an opportunity to get away from the stresses of everyday life." He plans to double revenue of the $1.3 billion company through a stronger, more consistent brand image across all product lines.

ESCAPIST MINDSET

Martin/Williams created one print ad for each of the company's top sled lines, which range in price from $3,000 to $8,000, with sport photography designed to appeal to hard-core enthusiasts. Headlines reinforce the escapist mindset with statements such as, "Something tells me I won't be `employee of the month' anytime soon" and "It's not my fault they stuck Valentine's Day in mid-February."

The prior theme was "Ride the best," from Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis. Martin/Williams won the account in 1998; Associates & Stahl, Minneapolis, handles the ATV brands.

"This is the way snowmobilers talk," said Mark Jenson, VP-management supervisor for Martin/Williams. "They view this recreational passion as more important than everything else." Mr. Jenson said storyboards for TV spots are yet to be approved for the planned October break, but the core idea is still to appeal to people who want to get out into the snow.

The getaway position came about after the agency conducted a brand audit, Mr. Tiller said. One of the key findings from interviews with 1,600 people in 18 U.S. and Canadian markets was how people's stress levels have skyrocketed. When asked whether they felt stressed out, more than 50% of respondents answered yes. In 1998, only 9% said they felt stressed.

`AN EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE'

"People are looking for an escape to get away from the grind of everyday life. That's what we offer people," said Mr. Tiller. "They're looking for an emotional experience of spending time with friends and family." Action shots of the machines allude to their power and agility, but ultimately illustrate their end benefit while differentiating the brand from others in the category. The company is also expanding on the idea of enhancing the customer experience with a new Web site (polarisindustries.com). This week, the company will launch polaristrails.com to provide such information as snow conditions, dealer locators and tech tips.

Polaris is also reaching out to customers through financing and product extensions with apparel, gear and accessories. Last year, the company introduced kid-size recreational vehicles to make the sports more family-oriented. Under that theme, two weeks ago the company announced a marketing program dedicated to kids.

Combining all three brands under a common theme is part of the Medina, Minn.-based company's growth plan, said Steve Jacobs, an analyst with U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray. He said the company wants to build a dominant brand to maintain its leading or near-leading market share in the three categories, but also to lay a foundation to grow its parts, garments and accessories lines.

INSPIRED BY HARLEY

Inspired by the success that Harley-Davidson has shown in its lifestyle-oriented strategy, Polaris is shifting all its consumer communications to emphasize the escapist experience rather than "mechanicspeak" about horsepower, suspension and transmissions.

"In order to get to where they want to be, [Polaris] needs to solidify and improve brand awareness," said Mr. Jacobs. "In the past, Polaris has been highly regarded mechanically but that was lost to the consumer," he said. "Now they're saying all these great mechanicals and technology enhance the ride and give consumers the opportunity to escape the day-to-day tensions."

While only 25% of company revenue comes from snowmobile sales, Polaris leads Arctic Cat and Bombardier in the $130 million snowmobile category. ATVs make up 62% of sales, which peaked at $1.4 billion in 1999 for the first time since 1996 due to three consecutive dry winters. Polaris has maintained market share partly because its sales declined at a slower rate than the industry, said Mr. Jacobs.

Despite unpredictable weather conditions, Mr. Jacobs' outlook for the company is positive. When looking at the company's valuations, "You do have to discount Polaris because of impact with regard to [lack of] snow," but there are more groomed snowmobile miles than interstate highway miles," he said.

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