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Commando In Chief



Asleep At

The Wheel

While the Observation Post usually addresses branding issues on a national scale, this installment focuses on a local phenomenon that's consistent across the country--the lack of branding in car dealership advertising.

Buying a car is said to be the second biggest purchase, next to a home, in an individual's life. So why are dealer ads in wild contrast to the warmth and sophistication real estate ads project?

From coast to coast, the Automotive sections in daily newspapers are filled with full-page ads visually screaming for attention with giant headlines, prices, starburst violators and goofy cartoon mascots.

The only rationale for these garish graphics is, perhaps, to achieve the design equivalent of the banners and balloons decorating dealer lots and showrooms.

Until I turn up any research supporting the effectiveness of the conventional cluttered, multi-car pile up approach to dealer newspaper ads, I can only attribute its use to herd instinct.

Giving credence to this assumption is the fact that upstart car seller CarMax has quickly created a branded presence in the Automotive section that clearly distinguishes it from the surrounding local dealership eyesores.

Ultimately, this "buy now" hysteria and the accompanying "me-too" claims of "unbeatable deals" neutralizes the entire category into a commodity.

It's strange how, in an image-driven field like automotive advertising, brand building breaks down at the point of sale level.

The task of brand building is left solely to manufacturers' ad campaigns. These beautiful celebrations of sheet metal are clean and uncluttered in both broadcast and print.

Newspaper versions, which dealers are allowed to tag with tiny type, generally feature a single car occupying the space a dealership would cram with a couple dozen vehicles.

The only down side to manufacturer's ads is that they tend to all look the same (currently with a mandatory slammin' dance track on TV spots).

Apparently, the hope is that prospects will be so impressed by flashy national image campaigns that only location and perhaps a personal recommendation remain as factors in deciding where to buy a car. Never mind who's selling it.

Further contributing to the commodification of local dealerships is the control manufacturers hold over special deals and rebates. One dealership's "unbeatable deal" on a particular make and model is the same as a competitor's down the street. So what's the point of shopping around?

Manufacturer's are also calling the shots on the regional advertising level. Until the late 80's, these promotion-driven campaigns were controlled by dealerships who contributed a percentage of their sales to an advertising fund. While they still pool their money in this manner, how it's spent is dictated by car manufacturers and their national agencies.

While this lends a element of consistency to an automobile's brand image, it further removes dealerships from a branding mindset.

This atmosphere of overwhelming manufacturer control has produced a generation of passive dealerships that devoid of personality.

Some car brands, like Land Rover, don't even allow dealerships to so much as mention their names. They are not worthy. Dealerships are merely given the privilege of selling the cars in a protected geographic area.

Gone are they days of dealers like the legendary Cal Worthington. In his pioneering TV spots, Cal, duded up in a cowboy suit, would literally stand on his head to beat anybody's deal. He'd host late night movies from his car lot with a rotating menagerie of animals (including a tiger) that posed as "his dog Spot."

Corny? Yes but this consistent branding effort made an indelible impression on car buyers in Southern California. (Cal, now in his early 80s, is still producing spots).

Besides some direct descendants of Cal Worthington, like Chicago's Mad Max Madsen, not many car dealers use their personalities as a branding tool any more. They're just names on a sign or ad. Most are too timid to make any claim or embrace a branding strategy.

The vague marketing needs of some noncommittal dealerships are being met by auto advertising syndicators who peddle the same bland ads around the country as templates for dealerships to put their names on.

Other dealerships take a tip from David Ogilvy, who said, "when you have nothing to say, sing it." They've composed jingles that amount to little more than a recitation of the cars they carry and their location. Name, rank and serial number.

At least jingles, used consistently, build brand equity. All too often, dealerships just hand off their budgets to quasi-ad agencies who are merely brokers more concerned with buying media rather than what they're filling it with. And it shows.

Auto dealership branding is stuck in neutral through sheer inertia. Laziness.

Things don't have to be this way. Car dealerships are essentially retail outlets. And as Target has skillfully demonstrated, it's possible for a retailer to promote a diverse range of national brands without losing their identity in the process.

However, to do so, one needs a strategy. And that's something auto dealerships don't seem to put a lot of faith in. Or have a lot of patience with.

Apparently, many can't think beyond the next sale. Which is a shame since they have access to resources that can both brand them and build sales for years to come.

I'm referring to the wealth of information in their data bases. All the people who have not only purchased cars from them but also those who have visited their showroom or have had service work done.

Through mailed questionaires or phone calls, dealerships could uncover the mystery of why people do business with them rather than the guy down the street. These insights could reveal the foundation of a solid branding campaign.

And once a campaign is developed, they can turn to their customers once again to measure its effectiveness in generating and converting leads.

Besides a source of information, a dealership's database is also a source of lasting relationships. Generally overlooked, these can be cultivated into repeat business.

Direct mail would certainly play a part in this. But instead of using the preprinted postcards provided by manufacturers for dealerships to stamp their names on, mail pieces specifically promoting the dealership should be created.

Besides service promotions, mailing pieces celebrating birthdays, holidays and other personal events should also be part of this long term effort.

Dealerships would do well to study the techniques of car salesman Joe Girard. (His books have been on the market for years and should be required reading in the industry.)

While the Detroit Chevy dealership Joe worked in was undistinguished, Joe transformed himself into a one man brand. This guy was into permission marketing decades before it became a catch phrase.

His innovative sales system earned him the title "World's Greatest Salesman" by the Guinness Book of Records for 12 years in a row (up until he retired). Talk about excelling in a commodity market.

I'm unaware of any dealership that has extrapolated Joe's winning system into a full scale branding campaign. The opportunity is certainly there. Guess they're all asleep at the wheel.