The Hot Tub Industry's Awareness Problem

Cailley Hammel Headshot

While the pool and spa industry overall has finally caught a break — in the form of a better economy, an improving housing market and consumers willing to spend a little more — there’s one area that some has yet to blossom to its full potential: the hot tub industry.

Steve Hammock, president of Watkins, alluded to this in a recent interview with AQUA, saying the hot tub industry is in need of a “return to relevance.” In this article, we explore the subject a little more and look to the future challenges the industry faces.

You said in a recent interview that visibility and awareness are important issues for the hot tub industry. Can you explain what you meant?

I think top-of-mind awareness has always been a challenge for our category. When people see our products they fall in love with them, but unless they know someone who has one, they aren’t entirely clear what we mean when we use the term “hot tub” or “portable spa.” Often, what they picture in their mind and what we actually manufacture and market are not aligned. Over the past four to five years, much of the industry’s marketing has been online, each of us manufacturers and retailers competing for those who already know of us and are searching for information. There has been very little what I’ll call top-of-funnel or reach advertising during that period and as a result, top-of-mind, unaided awareness has further declined. As I mentioned, our visibility has never been great when compared to traditional competitors in the discretionary product space. With declining awareness comes declining relevance, meaning there are often many other things ahead of us on the wish list.

When did hot tub visibility begin to slip?

Just track the numbers furnished by PK Data. By 2007, the amount of reach marketing our category produced began to slip measurably and never really recovered. Again, there was never really all that much marketing spend to begin with when compared to other consumer product categories. While some of us have outperformed the market the past few years, in aggregate — again using the published numbers — our industry hasn’t grown. As a category, adding up the annual output of all of us OEM’s combined, our annual unit sales totals are closer to the floor established in 2009, than to the peak which is now eight or nine years behind us. This reality comes at a time when housing has grown, autos have come some ways back and the stock market is at record levels. This is why I believe our industry has issues to overcome besides diminished consumer spending levels.

Has the public’s perception of the hot tub changed significantly?

This I can’t answer. What my experience tells me however, is that what most people “know to be true” about hot tubs simply isn’t. For example, hot tubs are more expensive than average consumers think they will be, but they are also easier to buy, install, use and own than they believe they will be. This really hasn’t changed much. I won’t say it’s worse, but it is also not better. Personally, I don’t believe the term “hot tub” serves us well. I know we all gradually moved away from “portable spa” because we didn’t think it was an apt description, which is true, but the term “hot tub” also has some perceived negatives that turn some folks off. It’s not proven, and I am unaware of any research that confirms it, but I have talked to thousands of people over thirty years, and the reaction I get to the term is mixed at best.

How can the hot tub industry change or rebuild its image?

I would say change, not rebuild. It’s not that we need to replace bad messages with good ones, but collectively, we need to replace no messages with some! That said, some of our industry’s former messaging about stress relief, backyard entertaining, “you deserve it,” staycation and the like, aren’t going to get it done. People know all that already, and their response to those types of images and messages is increasingly “no.” There are some more current, effective and compelling ways to market these wonderful, legitimate products, and those are what Watkins is pursuing. It’s time for a fresh start, it’s time to re-introduce hot tubs as absolutely essential for the times we’re living in today.

What can the hot tub retailer do to help turn the tide?

Take the show on the road. Get out of the store. Go where the potential customers are. When people see us, they fall in love with the idea of a better way to relax at home.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

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