Since the earliest days of radio spots and television sponsorships, celebrity endorsements were considered the gold standard of commercial validation. The idea that a compensated actor or pop culture personality lends any credibility to a product or service might be ridiculous, and yet, the hapless consumer inside of each of us continues to fall for the tactic time-and-time-again. Few industries are exempt. Setting aside the actor’s own business interest, considering the automotive marketing coup enjoyed by the Ohio Chevy dealership that now bears the name Mark Wahlberg Chevrolet. Drawing droves of admirers as consistently as his family’s burger joints do, the dealership benefited from the attention of those hoping to catch a glimpse of (or photo op with) the managing partner. Many of them even went on to purchase a vehicle, as a result, so the proof is in the proverbial pudding. As a TMZ-minded society, there’s a certain cache that comes with celebrities and that appeal has been put-to-work since the dawn of modern marketing.
It can go wrong, though. Even celebrities are flawed humans capable of mistakes; mistakes that can damage a brand. Years ago, a business might have jumped at the opportunity to score Bill Cosby, Michael Vick or Matt Lauer for a celebrity endorsement. Times change.
But with 2019 edging around the corner (more quickly than most of us are comfortable with) any marketer worth their salt is advocating a shift against the current. Aside from the fact that any number of recent events have forced us to question ourselves for placing celebrities upon a pedestal, we’d have to be both sense-blind and ignorant to disregard the grassroots shift in spokesperson appeal. Because, more than ever, owners, figureheads and organizational leaders have become the best candidates to market their own products and services. And, with that in mind, it’s time to get personal about your business.
It’s Always Been Personal to You, Though… (Right?)
Whether you inherited your dealership as part of a family legacy, or count yourself among the fortunate entrepreneurs whose tireless work ethic has paid off in the formation of an automotive empire, your success is the result of a personal commitment…a choice.
At some point in your life, you made the decision to establish the automotive industry as the foundation (or at least a cornerstone) of your life. You’ve honored that decision day-in and day-out. You’ve sacrificed (as has your family) for success. You’ve been diligent in the steps taken to grow that success. From the most effective finance and sales professionals to the most qualified service technicians, you’ve built a team of constant contributors that you probably consider to be the best in the business. And in a world that often lacks commitment and follow-through, you’ve stood firm, honoring the commitment that you made on ‘Day One’. That, my friends, is always a story worth telling. Now, ask yourself…are you telling it?
Walking the Line
When you sit down and think about it, the automotive industry might be considered a pioneer in terms of utilizing self-branded marketing. From fast-talking, checkered sports coat wearing salesman of yesteryear to ‘wacky waving inflatable tube men’, the low budget efforts of local car dealerships have often featured the owner, or key salespeople in their advertising.
But having given credit where it’s due, it’s important to understand the misstep that comes with such a disingenuous depiction. While the intent was to put that figurehead front and center, the infusion of a manufactured image (let alone an unappealing one) conveys a short-sightedness, condescending to the intelligent consumer. This is increasingly true when you consider the evolving sensibility of today’s well-informed consumers. P.T. Barnum’s decree that “a sucker is born every minute” might be alive and well, but is that really the mindset that you want attached to your marketing message? Of course not.
Technology has transformed almost every industry into a bespoke, customizable landscape where a personalized experience is not only expected, but demanded. The prospective car buyers who are visiting your website, social media page, or dealership today want as personal an experience as they can get…and that begins with you.
The line between the excessive automotive marketing of the past and today’s personal approach is far from being a ‘thin’ one. That said, if you’re walking along that line (or find yourself on the wrong side of it) it’s time to make a change.
Where Reality & Perception Meet
While discussing personalized marketing, a quote comes to mind, “We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.”
Whether they know it, or not…whether you know it, or not…people are interested in you. They want to know about you. They want to know about your dealership, it’s history, your team. And if done well, the act of putting a face to your dealership might be the most empowering thing you’ve ever done.
Perception is reality, and any disparity between the two can be damning to a business. It’s no different from a personal relationship; if you’re holding back, or being disingenuous it will come back to haunt you. Present your dealership as it is, and you are helping to tailor the expectations of your customers, only to be rewarded by their loyalty (if satisfied). This is why so many consumers are rebelling against celebrity spokespeople.
Stepping up as the visible figurehead capitalized on this trend. Customers do have a choice of dealership and they would rather do business with one that conveys a sense of genuine integrity. Be present. Be visible. Shape consumer expectations while reshaping the culture within your dealership to support those expectations, and get to the heart of what matters to prospective customers.
You + Your Values = What Matters
Checking politics and social opinion at the door, the world is more emotionally driven than ever. I’m not talking about generational divides, but about the fact that the most successful brands (across any and all industries) are forming an emotional bond with their loyal customer base.
Consumers associate with brands that share their values. As such, the attempts of any business to market itself to modern consumers should place the values of that business at the forefront. What is your mission? What commitment do you make to your customers? What should their expectations be? This genuine transparency is as important (if not more) than your physical presence…and all you have to do is live up to the values that you present.
There’s nothing wrong with professional polish. This is especially true when we’re paying sincere tribute to the level of competence that comes with well-seasoned experience. That said, there’s a time and a place for production values and scripting, but neither are required to market your dealership. Trusting your own, unique professional polish is the first step; the second is embracing the reach offered by today’s technology.
It feels contemptuous to refer to video as a marketing ‘trend’. Video isn’t going anywhere, in fact it’s been proven to be the fastest growing, most heavily consumed (and easily digested) online content there is. From YouTube uploads to Live Streaming on Social Media platforms, video content is the simplest means of conveying a message to the widest possible audience prompting the most engagement.
Utilizing such platforms, and featuring owners or trusted employees to present such messages fosters relatability, creating a personalized experience based around familiarity.
Perhaps you want to feature a specific model, discuss new inventory, or increase awareness about a promotion or sales event. Technology has empowered you with the ability to get that message out in real time, at little or no cost. Why wouldn’t you want to make use of that? And why wouldn’t you want to put it to use, with the same mindset of personalizing your relationship with your valued customers?
Video content (and lots of it) should be a priority of yours, effective immediately. From polished, scripted content to organic short-form riffing, the opportunity is yours to seize or disregard. If you don’t make the right choice in 2019, you might find yourself too far behind as of 2020.
New Customers. New Expectations
With Baby Boomers slowly aging out of the car-buying demographic, look to the values of the Millennial and upcoming Gen-Z customers that replenish those numbers, with driving marketing sensibilities.
If you make over a million dollars in revenue annually and have been in business for more than a decade, younger consumers will view you as a heartless, faceless extension of capitalist ideals. We love capitalism, which feeds our love of successful marketing. That said, we hope you’ll spend 2019 realigning the values of your dealership with the evolving expectations of the customers who could be driving your strongest revenue growth in years.
Make it personal. Be transparent. Use technology to engage with them openly, honestly and as often as you can. While you’re responsible for your corporate culture and what you present, a dealership with positive leadership, a culture of integrity, and a strong sense of self will benefit from taking these steps over the next 12 months (and beyond).