Branding a Car Dealership –Ugh!

This will be the most negative blog I’ve written to date.

That’s because I can’t foresee a branding project that’s as hopeless as automotive dealerships.

We’ve all had our “war stories” concerning dealerships, whether on the sales floor or in a service department. I won’t bore you with my own – I’m sure they’re similar to your own. They all center upon the fact that the dealer is out to get as much from your wallet as he/she possibly can without regard to customer satisfaction or long-term relationships.

Now I know Saturn dealerships and one or two other dealers in the Denver metro area proclaim to be “different”. But I don’t believe it. And that’s where the rubber meets the road – customer perceptions. We’ve come to believe an auto dealership is the place you go to get screwed.

That’s why I’m going to use a car buying service the next time I shop for a new car. That’s why those customer-oriented businesses are gaining such popularity and success.

So how would I, as a branding professional, advise a car dealer? Well, I probably would turn down the opportunity except that our assignment this month as a member of the BrandingWire posse is to advise a generic dealership on branding.

Here’s the problem: the dealership that wants a “brand” that helps them get people into the dealership so they can be fleeced won’t last too long. Word of mouth, Internet rating services and blogs, BBB and other consumer advocate groups will soon expose their true nature. (You won’t see too many derogatory news reports because radio, TV and newspapers make a lot of money from dealer advertising.) Yes, I am cynical.

Dealers need a new way of thinking

A successful new agency brand must start with a new way of thinking about running a dealership. The owner must embrace a new business model based upon customer satisfaction, honesty, ethics and a long-range view of success.

This will take guts. Even though customers and prospects hate the old business model, it has up ‘til now been successful for most dealers. High-pressure, don’t let the prospect leave the showroom without a car mentality still works. Selling high-priced financing and insurance is still profitable.

Also, the car makers have high expectations and training programs based on the traditional model. And car salespersons, by and large, are single-minded in making a sale because of the commission/compensation plans they are presented. Another factor is the perception that car salespersons are only interested in money and possible recreational drugs. Now that’s a perception and not necessarily a fact or even an educated observation. But perceptions drive customer activities just as frequently as facts and expert opinions.

We all know any business wishing to establish a successful brand will need to have a brand champion in the CEO’s chair, and that the brand must be communicated and absorbed by each and every employee. Everyone on the payroll is an ambassador of the business and must personify the brand. Then, it’s making your vision, your value statement and your code of conduct foremost in all dealership activities.

It’s in these areas that a dealer needs to differentiate the business. Assuming these activities are customer-driven and based on a true desire to serve a market, there’s a chance to establish credibility over time. I’d say it’s worth exploring.

Some specific branding suggestions

Okay, let’s assume a dealer has adopted and instilled a code of conduct and in-store practices to differentiate itself from the ordinary car dealership. Now what?

Here are a few suggestions. Avoid the temptation of the owner, or a close relative of the owner, becoming the spokesperson for the franchise. I would hire a spokesperson full time. But this person will be an ombudsman (or woman) expressing customer concerns and explaining how the dealership avoids or eliminates the problems customer usually face in dealership experiences.

Next, I would make sure I did not shout at people through my radio, TV or print ads. I’d establish a strong individual graphic presence, but it would be a graphic identity that’s warm and understated. My ads would feature auto-buying hints, safety and teen driving tips, how-to articles about insurance, financing, maintenance and acquisition options. Yes, I’ll feature cars and special incentive programs and sales, but each ad would have an educational element as well.

I’d adopt a tagline that might be constructed as a challenge. “We’re on your side” might be the theme. But it will take time for that or any other theme to gain credibility. So expect this to be a long-range, relationship building experience.

One other thing: I’d become a major and visible community source of contributions in the form of cash, and more importantly, in people giving of their time and knowledge for everything from Scouts and Junior Achievement to runs for a cause and crisis relief. I’d contribute cars for student driver education. I’d help schools fund manual arts programs. I’d become a “soft touch” for one-time charitable activities.

Get prepared for a long period of relationship-building

In summary, I’d make my agency as human and warm as possible by adopting a low-key approach to promotion, by hiring and training compassionate people, by giving to the community, and by being patient.

I may be naïve in my recommendations. Car dealers will follow their tried and true methods as long as they work. But I’m afraid that old model will change as one, then another, and another dealer find the old way no longer meets their expectations, their auto maker partner’s expectations, and most important of all, their customer’s expectations.  

Now, please go to the BrandingWire to read what the other members of the BrandingWire posse have written about auto dealership branding. If I know this bunch, you’ll find new perspectives, challenging ideas and well-formed opinions that branders in general and car dealers in particular will find helpful.

Martin Jelsema

11 thoughts on “Branding a Car Dealership –Ugh!

  1. Martin,

    Good stuff. And when will dealers get it? It is all about you is every business’s tag line, if they have even a clue about marketing and sales.

  2. It is difficult not to be cynical, isn’t it – especially when you’ve experienced the legacy dealer attitude (as I have). I just have to believe that certain dealers are going to see the light – and I’m sure some already have – and that the model will be forced to change by virtue of some dealers succeeding in an extraordinary way by being, IN REALITY, customer-focused. As with all business evolution, the others will slowly but surely wither off as new business models replace them.

  3. Interesting post. I just started up a used car dealership three weeks ago in an attempt to change the industry. Evenlevel gives consumers access to cars at dealer only auctions, and the ability to see all of the same information as we do: purchase price, options and an inspection report.

    We’re trying to figure out the right market niche and brand image, if anyone has an feedback, positive or negative, I’d be really curious to hear it.



  4. EvenLevel:
    As aused car dealer, doesn’t the variety of vehicles on your lot largely determine your market? If, on the other hand, you wish to pick a market segment, say single women from 17 to 35 years of age, I’d sure learn what makes and models appeal to them and make sure my inventory was mostly of those types. Also, I’d suggest hiring my sales people with the same demographics/psycographics as your selected market segment. Then I’d make sure your branding elements – logo, type faces, colors, themes and slogans will resonate with that target group. For that purpose, I’d probably identify 10 or 12 people typical of your market and have them evaluate how well the elements resonate with them.

    But before doing any of the creative aspects of branding, I’d write what I call a Brand Platform. This document is strategic in nature and covers profiles of competitors, definitions of the market segment(s) you plan to serve, trends and opportunities within the geographic market and the industry itself, a description of the business model that will differentiate your business from your competitors, and finally, a code of conduct for your employees and for management. Utilize this document as a primer for your management group, as creative brief for your brand creation team, as a reference whenever someone comes up with an idea. This document can keep you consistent, relevant and creditable.

    That’s about all I can provide without knowing a lot more about your particular market, business model and mind set.

  5. Martin, I agree with you that the re-branding of car dealers, if it can be done, is a long process. Re-building trust will take time. I only see a few dealers heading in that direction, though! I wonder what it will take to wake them up?

  6. Martin,

    Thank you for taking the time to write back. I actually started the business more with a concept and process in mind than market segment. Evenlevel uses data aggregation to show consumers cars available at dealer-only auctions and we just add a flat $749 fee to each car. Typically, our prices are thousands less than the market (or KBB) average.

    Our business model is to improve the used car sales and distribution process to drive down costs for the consumers. We differentiate ourselves through the process, flat pricing and transparency. To some extent, we are business/product in search of a market segment.

    Our users seem united more by a common psychographic profile, rather than demographic. People who want to stretch up to a nicer car while staying within a budget and that are technologically savvy: recent college graduates and other tech professionals.

    I really like the idea of the code of conduct, and as we scale up, I can definitely see that becoming valuable. Thanks for the time and insights.

  7. Martin – The dealers all seem so cookie cutter in their approach, any dealer veering in the slightest different direction would seem to benefit from the instant differentiation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.