MOY 2019: Anne-Marie LaBerge takes BRP on a ride

The marketer is transforming the recreational vehicle company from product-driven to experience-led.

Anne-Marie LaBerge_BRP

This week, strategy is rolling out our profiles of the 2019 Marketers of the Year. Be sure to check out all of this year’s honourees as the week rolls on, and see who the overall winner is when they are revealed at this year’s AToMiC Awards.

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of strategy.

Warning: If you want to work with Anne-Marie LaBerge, you must go riding. You have your vehicle of choice, but ride you must.

Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) has long promoted the products and performance of its fleet. However, since joining the Valcourt, Que.,-based company in 2016, the SVP of global brands and communications has shifted that focus to instead promote the riding experience. So to sell the exhilarating rush, everyone who works with LaBerge must experience the feeling first-hand.

“All our customers have a deep need for experiences,” says LaBerge. “We like to say we calculate distance in emotion, not miles… You need to ride to understand this.”

Candace Borland, president and managing partner of Anomaly Toronto, confirms this is not hyperbole. The agency became BRP’s AOR after an extensive pitch process in the spring of 2017 and, yes, Anomaly staff have since ridden everything from Sea-Doo watercrafts in the Florida Keys to Can-Am off-road vehicles on farms in the U.K.

BRP currently sells its six brands to consumers in 112 countries around the world. And LaBerge travels, and rides, frequently to better understand these varied and complex market regions. She’s ridden everywhere from the Swiss Alps to Rio to Sydney. She splits her time between the company’s Valcourt headquarters and its Montreal office, and typically travels for one week each month in a bid to stay connected to all of the areas BRP products are sold.

In 2003, Canadian aerospace and transportation behemoth, Bombardier Inc., sold BRP to a group of investors. Ten years later, BRP went public, with company shares recently hitting an all-time high, thanks, in part, to LaBerge’s marketing savvy. Over the last two years, the company’s stock has risen 250% in value, from about $26 to approximately $65.
CAN_0017_FarmProgress_Defender_May_USENG.inddUp until LaBerge’s hiring, BRP was very product-led. Ads typically featured close-up photos of vehicles, but no people. LaBerge changed that. Instead of putting the product at the centre of its marketing, she shifted the focus to put consumers – and their stories, emotions and experiences – at the forefront. A recent ad for the Can-Am Defender, for example, shows a rancher in the foreground, with the side-by-side utility vehicle in the background. The human-focused marketing has already paid off, with retail sales of the Can-Am Off-Road vehicles rising 18% versus the 2% industry growth, according to BRP’s Sept. 2017 investor report. In the first fiscal quarter of 2019, BRP reported revenues were up 16%, primarily driven by higher wholesale of year-round products. BRP powersport product lines saw 12% growth, while the industry saw a decline, according to a company report.

BRP competitors vary depending on the product, but main rivals include Polaris, Yamaha, Honda, Arctic Cat and Harley-Davidson.“Yamaha and Honda are much bigger. We’re the underdog,” she notes. “The way we’re going to win is to be super, super focused in our approach.”

Part of that has included bringing all six brands under the BRP umbrella (Ski-Doo and Lynx snowmobiles, Sea-Doo watercrafts, Can-Am on- and off-road vehicles, Evinrude outboard engines for boats and Rotax engines for BRP vehicles) and defining each sub-brand’s purpose, promise and personality. A snappy 20-second ad posted on YouTube last February, for example, exemplifies the marketer’s vision. In it, a person falls off a Ski-Doo amidst stunning snow-covered mountains as someone else giggles off-camera. A voiceover then says: “You can fall for many reasons, but only one reason gets you back up,” followed by the tag “That Ski-Doo Feeling.” The short, yet emotionally evocative, video has been viewed almost one million times on YouTube.

Before BRP, LaBerge spent two decades in several marketing positions at Telus. She left the telecom in May 2016 after almost seven years as its VP, brand and marketing communications, and she was determined to take a well-earned hiatus. The break didn’t last long. Within mere months she joined BRP to help re-engergize its brands, starting in October 2016. Today, LaBerge works alongside a global comms team made up of approximately 20 people, including brand directors and a new digital lead.

Working with Anomaly and PHD/Touché, LaBerge plans to use very little traditional advertising in the future, instead focusing on building an “online megaphone” for the brand. Before the marketer joined, 90% of BRP’s marketing budget went to traditional advertising. That’s now down to 45%.

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“Our goal is to build a very powerful megaphone to tell our product brand story,” she notes, adding that she’s pivoting the company to be digital-first in an effort to leverage rider communities online.

BRP doesn’t merely have fans, it has “brand worshippers,” notes LaBerge, with some going as far as getting the image of a Ski-Doo permanently inked on their body. You can’t buy or imitate that kind of passion, so she wants to promote those brand worshippers online going forward. To do this, BRP is investing in its social strategy through an ambassador program, with influencer collabs set to roll out over the next three years.

LaBerge has also tapped consultancy Fahrenheit 212, which has offices in New York and across Europe, to come up with ways to appeal to the next generation of riders. “Millennials and Gen Z are not going to buy [BRP products] necessarily – they are about the sharing economy,” she says.

To reach those consumers, LaBerge says the brand will build playgrounds, or “experience centres,” where people of all ages can test-ride BRP’s products. These new centres will be trialed in China, starting early this year. She also wants to build experiences around travel. Offering the option to rent a BRP vehicle and go riding in, say, the Gobi Desert appeals to the “sharing economy generation,” she notes.

Shifting the company culture to one that celebrates emotion first and performance second has been an ambitious undertaking. But after laying the groundwork for BRP’s new strategy, LaBerge is more convinced than ever that “selling experience beats everything.” And she’s just getting started.

“People, around the world, buy experience over products. That is what all of our riders relate to. We basically just tapped into what was already there.”