The commercial — showing images of workers building a factory while an American flag waved — stood out among the other $5-million-for-30-seconds Super Bowl ads last year. No product was in sight, but the spot ended with stark white-on-black lettering: "At WeatherTech," it said, "we built our factory right here in America. Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?"
What was WeatherTech doing among spots for Jeep (Jeff Goldblum), M&Ms (Danny DeVito), Mountain Dew (Morgan Freeman), and Michelob Ultra (Chris Pratt)? And what does it make? Floor mats? You're kidding me.
Yes, indeed, WeatherTech manufactures and sells laser-cut, precisely fitting, all-weather floor mats — as well as trunk liners, pick-up bed liners, mud flaps, pet feeding systems, and seat protectors. Welcome to one of the most amazing advertising stories of the decade.
David MacNeil, who came to the U.S. from Canada as an infant, got his start as a manufacturer in 1988 after serving as a U.S. vice president for Mercedes' tuning shop, AMG, and noticing that its buyers got fast cars and crummy floor mats. He took out a $50,000 second mortgage and began with an import business that brought in good-quality mats from England.
Soon, he was making his own weather protection products, and, since 2009, manufacturing them at his own factory in Bolingbrook, Ill. (near Chicago). The company didn't make him an instant success, but learning how to sell his products with targeted advertising worked wildly well.
Today, the privately held WeatherTech is a half-billion-dollar enterprise with at least 1,100 employees and 11 factories (and another one on the way). And MacNeil — who gave a million dollars to Donald Trump campaign entities but has stopped contributing to candidates who are in favor of closed borders — is now a very rich man, with a fortune estimated at more than $400 million. He sails superyachts, pilots planes, and has a car collection that has included no less than 10 Ferraris, including a 250 GTO (number 4153 GT) that he reportedly paid $70 million to acquire.
Here's how he did it: Single-mindedness helped. Chris Arkell, a managing director at Pinnacle Advertising, WeatherTech's Chicago-area agency since 2009, described MacNeil as "very relentless and very consistent. His genius is in building a better mousetrap and using a specific formula to build the business and then reinvest revenues in the advertising strategy."
The last point is key because WeatherTech advertises everywhere: in print (bucking current trends), digital, social media, and all forms of broadcasting. WeatherTech is routinely the largest advertiser in any car magazine you pick up (sometimes with spreads of up to 10 pages).
In contrast, automakers have been dramatically cutting back on their ad support for the buff books, even though the periodicals retain large core groups of enthusiastic readers. "We still advertise in the magazines and see them as key partners," said Patrick Leitch, Ford's truck integrated communications manager. But the most recent issue of Motor Trend had a four-page layout from WeatherTech and nothing even remotely comparable from an automaker.
Part of that may be loyalty because car magazines were the go-to place for the company to advertise when it was starting out. That's because their readers really care about their rides and want to protect them from snow, ice, mud, and leaves. And they're willing to pay for premium items, which in the case of floor mats average $180 a set. If the ads worked, the next month, the magazine got a bigger one.
All the ads prominently display the "Made in America" message, and 95 percent of the company's products are, in fact, created here. Mike Magnuson, Pinnacle's chief executive officer, said that MacNeil has "a very strong philosophy, that manufacturing in America is a significant part of what a company can do for the working population. It's important for him to manufacture here and create jobs. He wants to show that betting on America can be done successfully."
And the message resonates. "Ten years ago, WeatherTech was a healthy business, but nothing like it is today," Magnuson said. "People liked the idea that the mats were laser-cut and an American-made, high-tech product that fit properly [the] first time."
Early ads on Chicago television in 2009 were successful, and Magnuson said the company has "been on the air every single week since then." But the ads are national these days.
Magnuson declined to specify the company's annual spend on advertising, but Kantar Media pegged the figure at $74 million on measured media, including radio, TV, and print, in 2013. The figure jumped considerably in the years after that because the company started advertising on the Super Bowl.
Magnusonsaid that the company is routinely bombarded with letters and emails from people who say they bought the product because it's made in the U.S. "It does resonate," he said. "It means something to the American public." MacNeil is doubling down on the approach because "it works," Magnuson added. "He wouldn't be continuing to invest in something that doesn't give you a good rate of return."
MacNeil, who declined a request for an interview, drove this point home in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2017: "I'm a businessman," he said. "I try not to do things without a benefit to the company, my community, myself. If we're throwing money down a hole, that's not something I'm going to do twice."
Why the Super Bowl? "Brand names in America mean a lot, especially good brand names," MacNeil told the Tribune. "Where do the big boys advertise? They go to the Super Bowl because it gives them a level of stature and credibility, and that name starts to become a household name."
WeatherTech also advertises in major print media, including the front section of the New York Times. The newspaper "does a good job of reaching its core audience," Magnuson said. That, again, was opposite to the conclusion of the auto companies, which failed to support the newspaper's stand-alone "Automobiles" section.
MacNeal has been able to turn his authentic passions into advertising vehicles. On a recent visit to Lime Rock Park in Connecticut — one of the places the company races — the WeatherTech logo was omnipresent. WeatherTech has sponsored since 2016 the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race series, whose next event is at Sebring International Raceway on November 8.
WeatherTech's name also adorns the storied Laguna Seca racetrack in Monterey, Calif. MacNeal has consistently shown that he will spend what it takes to get the company name in front of the public.
In 2019, WeatherTech had two short Super Bowl ads: "Scout," for the Pet Comfort feeding system, and the other a spot for a novel phone holder that fits into a car's cupholder. Though the ads aren't focused on those Illinois factories populated by American workers, both end with the company logo, and that message, "Made in America."
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