One of my favorite definitions of a brand came from Seth Godin, entrepreneur and best-selling author, who said, “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”
Advertising and branding agencies have toiled away throughout the years, trying to define and differentiate brands from a sea of products and consumer choices. Developing a strong brand takes time, investment, and consistency. A brand is also now defined by the experience consumers have with the product or service and is often the single most crucial determinator of a brand image and value.
Some of the top brands in the world we all know and trust are names you are familiar with, such as Apple, Coca-Cola, Disney, Pepsi, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Nike, to name a few. Each of these brands have created indelible positions in people’s minds that have taken years to develop.
A strong and vivid brand provides the umbrella to support various sub-brands, products, models, and services. Once a trusted brand has been established in the marketplace, consumers use this familiarity to make purchase decisions.
Automotive Dealership Brands
Although some long-standing automotive dealers have created some level of local awareness, in most cases, dealers have not fully developed and evolved their own personal brands within their local markets. I’m not talking about dealer jingles or taglines but a truly differentiated local merchant brand that evolves with the market and consumer needs.
For too long, most automotive dealers have not fully capitalized on the power and value of creating a distinctive local brand. Unfortunately, most marketing efforts with automotive retailing are focused on pushing vehicle or service offers only and not enough on informing consumers about why they should shop, buy or service from them.
Why Dealer Branding Makes More Sense Now Than Ever
Here is how dramatically the automotive market has changed over the past two years and why a definitive local brand strategy makes so much sense today.
- COVID Pandemic – Permanently changed the car shopping and buying experience
- Digital Retailing Tools & Processes – Accelerated adoption and implementation
- At-Home Services – New customer experience actions in place like at-home test drive/delivery
- Salesperson Role – Car buyers are less inclined to interact with a salesperson, and the sales role has shifted from greeting new potential customers to fielding online chats and finding vehicles
- Inventory Shortages – Auto buyers paid on average more than $1,600 over MSRP for the 65% of buyers where vehicle price was greater or equal to MSRP in March 2022, according to Power Information Network (PIN) data from J.D. Power
- Dealership Staffing Concerns – Dealers facing staffing shortages (service techs) and parts delays
- EVs – The new wave of electric vehicles will continue to challenge dealers in both sales and service
Consumers Expand Shopping Distance – Chip shortage and new digital retailing tools broadened the geographic shopping radius for auto shoppers to 50 miles from home
According to a recent survey by McKinsey & Company, prospective buyers are less inclined to want to interact at car dealerships. That decline in preference is falling across all regions and age groups—especially for consumers between 55 and 70 years of age, who now consider online buying a relevant alternative to visiting dealers.
This recent and rapid transformation of the automotive industry, fueled by the massive support for EV vehicles and alternative vehicle ownership options, will continue to disrupt the automotive industry and directly challenge the role of the automotive dealer.
Dealer Identification Is Not Sufficient
Here is the core issue with current dealer branding within advertising: Agencies and certified digital advertising providers focus all their time and attention on creating advertising content and templates that can easily be automated to keep the production costs down. In other words, they create simple templates for all dealers that can be programmatically modified without human interaction for the simplest way to build scalable dealer communications.
This is particularly evident in email campaigns, direct mail, and digital video and broadcast video campaigns where a core ad unit is only customized with simple dealer identification, logo, website URL, physical address, and contact information. Although this “templatized” approach is understandable, this approach misses the opportunity to distinguish one dealer from another. Again, this is “dealer identification” only and not true “dealer branding.”
Most marketing initiatives have done a good job creating more relevancy through customer personalization but missed the mark when it comes to integrating and developing distinctive dealer branding and differentiation in all communications.
Creating a Highly Differentiated Local Dealer Brand
Today, dealers need to think about how to evolve current approaches by challenging their agencies and providers to develop a clear strategy on how to communicate each dealer’s unique story across all communication channels. I strongly recommend that dealers move beyond pure model or service offer advertising within typical ads and start adding their unique customer experiences and dealer brand promise into their marketing efforts.
This is a strategy to be embraced and pushed on behalf of the dealer principal or GM within the dealership. It won’t happen on its own. It must be top-down for it to stick.
Remember every car you sell on behalf of each OEM may also be available by another dealer down the street. Do you really want your only chance to sell that same vehicle based on lowest price or how fast you respond to an incoming lead? Of course not.
Ways to Distinguish Your Local Dealer Brand
Here are some ways to begin to develop and communicate your own special dealership brand:
- Dealer Brand Promise – What do you stand for, and what are you willing to do to support each customer’s automotive needs
- Consumer Experience – Define what makes your overall experience easier and more effective than other dealers
- Dealer Facility & Services Photos – Enable shoppers to envision what it will be like to walk into your showroom or drive into your service facility
- Online Research & Buying Tools – What apps and digital tools will save shoppers time
- Friendly and attentive expert staff – Introduce your staff to your local market, and humanize your team so consumers feel familiar with them
- At-Home Test Drive & Delivery – Show how you have evolved your ability to provide personalized service that is more convenient for all consumers
- Service Pick Up & Drop Off – Win the business over lower-priced independent service shops
- Uber/Lyft Customer Transportation – Demonstrate innovative ways to improve the service experience
- Vehicle Cleaning and Sanitization Efforts – Overcome any trepidation caused by the pandemic
- Expert Product Specialists – Highlight key individuals who are well versed in product advantages and the competition
- EV Specialists – Now is an incredible opportunity to provide guidance and education to consumers who are hearing a lot about electric vehicles but may have major obstacles to overcome
- Certified Service Technicians – Reinforce the advanced technology and diagnostic tools only available within your dealership
- Consumer Inventory Text Alerts – Alert consumers of recent in-stock or in-transit inventory and provide them with video walkarounds of each VIN
- Local Community/School Involvement – Highlight your support for your community because when all else is equal, this may influence a purchase from your dealership
- Local Charity Involvement – Supporting your local charities is not about promoting your contributions but does say a lot about your dealership brand
- Repair & Collision Center – Because dealers are often completely forgotten when it is time to deal with collision damage, why not let car owners in your community know that you can fix their vehicles and will use genuine OEM parts
Your Dealership as a Brand
With chip shortages limiting new car inventories and a pandemic that accelerated new customer experience expectations, it is a great time to build and differentiate your dealership as a brand. As Seth Godin said, “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships,” it is up to you as a local dealer to deliver real world actions that distinguish your brand in your local community and get more people to choose your store over the rest.
About the Contributor
Tim Copacia is Executive Vice President of Strategic Development at J.D. Power UnityWorks. He is a former agency CEO and automotive pioneer in digital marketing, CRM, customer experience management and data-driven video experiences. He has held executive-level roles at BBDO, Wunderman/Young & Rubicam, Campbell Ewald, and Ross Roy/InterOne Marketing Group. He has led multi-million-dollar omnichannel marketing programs across all marketing tiers for several major OEMs.