It wasn’t long into Jim Piraino’s stint as owner of his Southern California repair shop that he realized traditional marketing alone wasn’t going to get the results he wanted.
He sent out thousands and thousands of flyers and coupons and did everything by the book to attract new customers.
And it worked—sort of.
“I remember one month I got 47 new customers in for free oil changes,” he says, “but what I found was we were under 10 percent on those people returning for second visits. Other first-time customers, in for other reasons, over 40 percent were coming back. So what was the difference?”
The difference, Piraino came to realize, was that someone with a coupon is coming in for cash value. A long-term customer is built on trust, Piraino says, not a deal.
“When you play the pricing game on an oil change, you become a grain of sand on a beach,” he says. “What you need to do is find a way to stand out, for people to remember you.”
And this is why Piraino created his concept for “community branding,” or getting involved in the community to gain relationships and trust that ultimately lead to business success. Piraino used it for 33 years, and now as a coach with Elite Worldwide Inc., has seen how successful it can be for the shops he mentors.
“When you’re doing it for the right reasons, you’re going to build those ties and you’re going to get people migrating to your shop,” he says. “It’s not something that costs a lot of money, but it takes time and a commitment and a lot of effort. And it will pay off.”
Ratchet+Wrench tapped three shop owners who agree with Piraino’s approach to demonstrate how community branding works for their shops. They say it all comes down to three words: passion, purpose and patience.
There’s a gas pump cutout on the wall in the lobby at Houska Automotive. The Fort Collins, Colo., repair shop hits 60 years old this year, and to celebrate, second-generation owner Dennis Houska decided to spend the year filling up the pump with pieces of paper.
He calls it the “60 Acts of Kindness.” For each good deed someone at his shop does, they write it down, and it goes in the pump.
“It can be anything from helping kids to donating time or money to different organizations,” Houska says, “but it just has to be something to help our community. It has to be local. We want to just say thanks to everyone in our area that’s supported us for these 60 years.”
The goal was to get 60 by the end of 2012. They filled that by Memorial Day.
“I guess we should’ve gone for 100,” Houska jokes.
The fact is it’s unlikely that any goal—no matter how lofty—would’ve surprised those who know the family-owned-and-operated shop well. A friend of Houska’s for a number of years, Piraino puts it simply: “He does some pretty incredible things.”
Houska and his staff regularly participate in a respitality program that offers assistance to families with special-needs children. Through various fundraisers at local schools, the Houska family has helped raise more than $900,000 for a new cancer center. They donate used cars to single mothers. His wife, Noreen, started a program that collects super-hero themed underwear for underprivileged children. It’s donated thousands of pairs to various nonprofits and schools.
And all of that is just recently; some of “the things in the pump,” as Houska nonchalantly describes it.
Houska does acknowledge that these activities do a lot for his shop’s ability to gain and retain customers. “You meet a lot of really good people being involved in these types of things,” he says, “and those are the people that make good customers.”
That’s not his reason behind doing it, though, and Houska suggests people find ways to get involved in things they are passionate about.
“Find something you’re connected to, something where you know the people or know there’s a need,” he says. “People can tell when you’re doing it for the right reasons.”
That’s where the Houska’s biggest philanthropic effort came from. More than 20 years ago, he read a story about a local boy who needed a bone marrow donation. Not only did Houska volunteer to donate (and, luckily, he was a match), but he also decided to become a champion for the cause.
And so started the annual Houska Houska 5k trail run, a lighthearted all-day event modeled after the Bolder Boulder race every Memorial Day in nearby Boulder, Colo.
The first year, the Houskas had four people participate. For its 20th run this summer, they had more than 1,000.
“We just started to do it to raise some money for the bone marrow registry and to get people signed up to donate,” Houska says. “If you’re passionate about something, people can see that, and it can make a difference.”
John Francis Jr.’s new marketing strategy literally fell right out of the sky—in the form of a few hundred golf balls dropped about 100 feet from the door of a helicopter.
It was part of the local West Chester, Pa., YMCA’s annual golf-ball drop, an event to raise money for the organization’s various programs and awareness of child safety. The balls were dropped onto a green at a local golf course, and the ball closest to the pin earned the owner $1,500.
Francis Automotive has been a sponsor of the local YMCA for years, writing checks and sponsoring events to help out where it can. Recently, though, Francis decided to add a little more to the offer, giving away a voucher for a free state emissions test (required in Pennsylvania and normally $85) with each $5 ticket sold at the YMCA’s event.
“It was something that helped them out a bit in selling tickets, because it added a little more value to that five buck ticket,” Francis says. “It’s also a great opportunity for us: It gets new customers into our shop asking us to look over the whole vehicle and tell them everything that’s wrong.”
Francis, who opened his shop in 1979, has always hated doing traditional marketing. And even today, he rarely does it.
What he does do, though, is find unique ways to get people into his shop by offering useful (and free) services in his community.
“It came down to what I wanted people to know my shop as,” he says. “It’s not about fixing the cars; it’s about what we do.”
And that’s where Francis found his niche in child seats. Five years ago, he and his son, shop manager John Francis III, became certified through the state to inspect and install car seats. They’re the only shop in their state to offer the free service, and it wasn’t a simple process.
It was a 32-hour, three-day course to officially get certified, and Francis and his son have to get recertified each year.
“It was a commitment, something we really believed in doing,” he says. “The main thing, for me, was being a granddad and just seeing how precious those kids really are.”
Francis also invested in child I.D. kits, used to help find missing or abducted children. With his shop’s name on them, he handed out more than 300 at a recent event.
Unlike the emissions testing and golf ball drop sponsorships, which can be quantified in the amount of vouchers (Francis says about 25 percent are brought in for tests), the impact of the car seats and I.D. kits is not easy to measure.
“The child safety is more of a feel good thing for the community,” he says. “I can’t quantify it as far as a dollar amount. We just felt like we needed to do it.
“You have to look at it long-term, over time. I know some other shop owners who have tried car seats and give up after a couple months and say it didn’t work. You have to stick with it. You have to show people you’re committed to something like this, that you really are. That’s what makes the difference.”
Troy Minske was tired of simply writing checks to the different organizations that knocked on the door of his shop, Rum River Automotive, located about 45 minutes west of Minneapolis.
He wanted to do something different, something that would help a little more directly. He wanted it to be something people needed, something economical, something they’d have, hold, drink right in—then he had it.
“That was it,” he says. “I figured: You see bottled water everywhere you turn. Everyone always needs water for events and things. So I did some digging and looked into it.”
What he found was a company that could provide him with pallets of water with his shop’s logo for 17 cents per bottle.
“I used to be on the local Jaycee (United States Junior Chamber), and I knew that they sold water at the local softball field,” he says, “and I figured if we donated it to them, they could sell it for a profit and be able to use that money around town.”
It snowballed from there.
“We just started giving it to all these different organizations—the Boy Scouts, our church youth group,” Minske says. “We gave 3,000 bottles to the 4-H last summer, and they raised between $5,500 and $7,000 at the county fair selling it.”
He says he’s always done work with these groups in the past; now his name is more directly attached to the effort.
“It’s more brand recognition,” Minske says. “It’s not about driving immediate car count; it’s to bring people into this relationship, let them know who you are, why you’re there. Then someday, someone might go, ‘Well, maybe we should try Troy at Rum River. He’s been helping out our group for the last year. He’s a nice guy.’”
Although Minske does have a recycling program that goes with it (if a customer brings in the bottle, he gives them $5 off their next service), he says the effort is nearly impossible to quantify in terms of its affect on his business. And that’s fine with him, he says, because it’s not the real reason he does it.
Minske is rooted in his community, as a member of a number of local boards and groups. He helps his wife with local events for Reading is Fundamental, a national children’s literacy group. And, recently, Minske took over a local nonprofit organization called William and Kaitlin’s Closet, which provides used clothing to underprivileged children.
“Originally, we were going to do a clothing drive (at the shop), but someone put me in touch with the woman who started this,” Minske says, “and then her and her husband had to move out of state and she asked if I could take over.”
“We’re still in the stages of going through all the clothing—there’s a lot of it,” he says. “But we’re trying to get our church and the youth group involved.”
He’s also using his shop to promote it. He’s already put up a large decal on his lobby wall as an advertisement for it.
“It’s something that we feel like we can really help with,” Minske says. “It’s about finding a need, and this was something where there’s a big need. Hopefully, we can help.”