This will be the most negative blog Iâ€™ve written to date.
Thatâ€™s because I canâ€™t foresee a branding project thatâ€™s as hopeless as automotive dealerships.
Weâ€™ve all had our â€œwar storiesâ€ concerning dealerships, whether on the sales floor or in a service department. I wonâ€™t bore you with my own â€“ Iâ€™m sure theyâ€™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 â€œdifferentâ€. But I donâ€™t believe it. And thatâ€™s where the rubber meets the road â€“ customer perceptions. Weâ€™ve come to believe an auto dealership is the place you go to get screwed.
Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m going to use a car buying service the next time I shop for a new car. Thatâ€™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.
Hereâ€™s the problem: the dealership that wants a â€œbrandâ€ that helps them get people into the dealership so they can be fleeced wonâ€™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 wonâ€™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 â€˜til now been successful for most dealers. High-pressure, donâ€™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 thatâ€™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 CEOâ€™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, itâ€™s making your vision, your value statement and your code of conduct foremost in all dealership activities.
Itâ€™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, thereâ€™s a chance to establish credibility over time. Iâ€™d say itâ€™s worth exploring.
Some specific branding suggestions
Okay, letâ€™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. Iâ€™d establish a strong individual graphic presence, but it would be a graphic identity thatâ€™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, Iâ€™ll feature cars and special incentive programs and sales, but each ad would have an educational element as well.
Iâ€™d adopt a tagline that might be constructed as a challenge. â€œWeâ€™re on your sideâ€ 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: Iâ€™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. Iâ€™d contribute cars for student driver education. Iâ€™d help schools fund manual arts programs. Iâ€™d become a â€œsoft touchâ€ for one-time charitable activities.
Get prepared for a long period of relationship-building
In summary, Iâ€™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 naÃ¯ve in my recommendations. Car dealers will follow their tried and true methods as long as they work. But Iâ€™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 partnerâ€™s expectations, and most important of all, their customerâ€™s expectations.Â Â
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, youâ€™ll find new perspectives, challenging ideas and well-formed opinions that branders in general and car dealers in particular will find helpful.