From Reel to Real: A Fisherman’s Guide to Authentic Marketing

By: Brian Mulderrig

For as long as I can remember, I have been a fisherman. Fishing is not just a hobby for me; it is an intrinsic part of my very being. Every encounter with a body of water sparks an irresistible urge to explore its potential.

For instance, when I was 10, my parents took the family on a trip to Washington, D.C. While my mom, dad and siblings checked out the Lincoln Memorial, I found myself instinctively drawn to the reflecting pool. Always equipped with a rod & reel, I spent my time fishing rather than sight-seeing. This practice became habitual, from the quiet moments before elementary school through the busier years of high school and college. These days, I fish weekly during the season alongside my day job, where I assist brands in authentically advertising to the right audience.

Having spent the last 13 years of my professional career helping companies of all sizes market their products and services, I’ve recently found myself reflecting on the value of authenticity and the parallels that exist between the realms of fishing and marketing. As we stand today at the dawn of a generative AI revolution, with deep fakes running rampant across the internet, it is perhaps more crucial now than ever before for brands to be authentic to their core mission and values in their advertising message.

In the spirit of authenticity, let’s delve into the four C’s of marketing through the lens of a well-seasoned fisherman. I’ll do my best to eliminate any hook or “reel ’em in” puns wherever possible.

1. Customer: Understand Your Target Like a Trout

I wrote a research paper in 9th grade on the feeding habits of the rainbow trout. I was equipped to do so only because I had spent years researching and endless hours of time in the field understanding these fish. Trout are an infamously wary species, known for their selectivity in feeding, requiring an understanding of seasonality, timing and habitat variables. All of these factors matter immensely when trying to convince a trout that your pile of feathers tied to a hook is an actual bug. Variables such as water depth, current speed, type of cover (i.e. fish hiding place) need to be understood and factored when trying to elicit a bite. To consistently land trout on a fly, I took the time at a young age to learn everything there is to know about them.

A brand’s customers should be treated using the same approach. Humans are incredibly dynamic and are embracing a variety of interests today that make them difficult to bucket. Take advantage of the market research tools available now. A/B test creative messaging within your target audience before taking it to market. Ask your customers about how they feel about your brand or products (more on that in the fourth C). In short, know who they are. Know their environments and preferences. Understand their buy cycles, do the research, and it will pay off. Truly knowing your customer is critical for marketers as it is for a fly fisherman pursuing his or her quarry.

2. Cost: Beyond Price, Hook Customers on Value

I have been making value-based purchasing decisions on fishing gear since I could afford to make them. The motivation for my first summer job was to buy a fishing canoe in order to better access the river a mile from my family’s house in rural Tennessee. I remember pouring over the Academy Sports catalog, evaluating which canoe best fit my needs while calculating the amount of lawns I needed to cut in order to make the purchase before the end of summer. While price was certainly a huge factor at 11 years of age, freedom was what I was really buying. To this day, there is no price I wouldn’t pay for freedom. The pictures I had saved (yes, print) of men out on the water in their Pelican canoe, fishing rods in custom holders, heading out for an epic adventure was all the marketing I needed as a young man. It was a value sell at its best.

Consider cost as the total investment – money, time, effort and emotional commitment – a customer pays for a brand’s product or service. It boils down to the delicate balance of price versus performance. Brands must grasp and market the value they bring relative to their pricing, steering clear of a price-driven approach that leads to commoditization. As those adventure-filled fisherman printouts from my youth suggested, the perceived value triumphs over price. What does your target customer truly value? What’s priceless to them? Over two decades and several moves later, I still own that canoe, its performance justifying its cost.

3. Convenience: If Bass Could Use DoorDash, They Would

Largemouth bass are potentially the most sought-after game fish in America. I’ve been chasing them on spinning tackle for as long as I can remember. Not as picky as the aforementioned rainbow trout, largemouths will eat anything from tiny minnows to small ducklings, but you need to make that bait convenient for them to take. Lilly pads, submerged trees, rock structures offer fantastic cover for bass depending on the time of year, so your bait must be presented in an area where they are located to provide them with a convenient meal.

By the 4th grade, I had discovered every honey hole (prime fishing location) my grandfather’s golf course ponds had to offer. The only hiccup was that this particular course, where he held a membership, prohibited fishermen in the early morning when bass tend to be most active. Recognizing that my dad was oblivious to Poppie’s course rules, I convinced him to take me one morning before school. Armed with the knowledge of the best spots, I could now access them when the fish were most voracious, offering these bass the ultimate convenience! Around 6:30 a.m., after successfully landing multiple fish, I saw golf cart headlights approaching and instructed dad to hit the deck! From our prone positions, I explained that we weren’t technically allowed to be there. We remained undetected as the course manager drove by, turning the morning into a valuable learning experience for Dad, and a relentless dedication to offering these bass convenience on my part.

Brands that win are those that make their products or services easy to buy and easy to use. Those that truly soar are the ones seamlessly incorporating convenience into their marketing narrative. Take Athletic Greens, for instance. Their AG1 product stands out as the epitome of convenience, bundling a multivitamin, probiotic, and immune support into one effortless scoop. This brand, starting from humble roots in 2010, now boasts a valuation exceeding $1.2 billion.

As a brand, how can you elevate the convenience quotient for your customers? In today’s world, everything from meal kits to diapers can arrive at your doorstep on autopay. Consider going beyond and offering a concierge-level service – showing up not just where your customers want but precisely when they’re hungry.

4. Communication: Fish for Feedback

The striped bass are currently on the move back into the Long Island sound on their spring migration north for the summer. It is one of my favorite times of year, and my brother and I are on the water weekly in pursuit. Since there are two of us, we typically start our hunt by throwing different flies or lures to see what the preference is on a given morning. Whichever bait yields the first few bites, will be our bait of choice. This method of quickly A/B testing for preference enables us to make real-time optimization decisions based on what the fish are telling us. Sometimes the fish can be found deep in 60 feet of water; other times they are snacking on the surface. We won’t know for sure what or where they’re feeding until we “ask” them.  This concept is as true for fish as it is for people.

Leading brands thrive on two-way relationships with consumers. Netflix revolutionized the entertainment industry by giving viewers control. Starbucks excelled by personalizing drinks and engaging with customers on a first-name basis. Nike, inspired by real conversations, tackled underrepresentation with campaigns like “Dream Crazier.”

Great brand-to-consumer relationships are built on trust and mutual benefits achieved through listening and responding. When a customer feels that the ad they’ve been delivered aligns with their interests, they are more likely to trust the brand who delivered it. Just like with the striped bass, ask consumers about their preferences, and let those insights shape your brand message. It’s a simple concept, but it really works.

In the vast sea of marketing tactics available today, authenticity serves as the channel marker guiding brands through the turbulent waters of consumer scrutiny. Reflecting on the 4 C’s – customer, cost, convenience and communication – these principles, illuminated through a lifetime of fishing, will always create the path to successful marketing. Just as a well-presented lure will draw in a prized fish, an authentic marketing strategy will reel in a loyal customer base that stands the test of time.

This article originally appeared on Sales & Marketing Management