Big on Branding
When someone thinks about auto repair in San Diego County, Brian Bowersock wants to be the man that comes to mind.
Bowersock, aka the “Auto Guy,” is literally everywhere. He has a weekly segment on San Diego 6 News. He’s the host of an auto talk radio show. His face is on bus tails and billboards. His name appears on Little League jerseys, and he sponsors Boy Scouts fundraisers.
It’s all with one primary focus: developing brand awareness for his shop, West Escondido Automotive and Transmission in Escondido, Calif.
Bowersock, 43, bought his business in 1992, and has used his name-recognition strategies to grow the shop into a $3-million-a-year staple of the San Diego area.
And he’s done it all with no price-based marketing—no $9.99 oil changes or coupon mailers. Everything is about his brand and what he wants it to represent.
“I’m definitely a trigger puller,” he says. “If I see something that I want to do, I look at it real close, figure out how I’m going to do it, and then I just do it.”
Bowersock bought his shop when he was just 23. A year removed from the military, where he worked on heavy equipment, the young technician had $20,000 in his pocket.
“I figured it either was going to fly, or it wasn’t going to fly,” he says. “And at 23 years old, I had nothing to lose at that point. I could go back and do something else later if I needed to or go to work for somebody else.”
The previous owner had run the shop into the ground, so Bowersock says it had to be rebuilt from scratch.
“I just started there, worked really long, hard hours, usually seven days a week for the first three years,” he says.
Bowersock, a self-taught marketer, figured out long ago that price-based advertising wasn’t his style.
“I hate call-to-action advertising. I think it brands the wrong idea,” he says. “Some people it works for, but for me, I’m name awareness. That’s what I’ve done for 20 years. I always want to keep my name out there.”
Bob Cooper, president and founder of Elite Worldwide Inc. and a friend of Bowersock, agrees wholeheartedly with this approach: Whenever you do price-based advertising, Cooper says, you’re “robbing your own cradle.”
“And all great marketing schools enforce that,” Cooper continues.
Low-ball oil changes, free brake inspections, tire sales—those aren’t the most efficient ways to create a loyal customer base that keeps coming back, Cooper says.
Bowersock didn’t become “The Auto Guy” overnight. He started small, developing methods to build and track the effectiveness of his brand.
Here’s a look at some of his techniques:
Follow your own lead. According to Bowersock, too many shop owners choose advertising techniques based on what they see everyone else doing—phone book, direct mailing, etc.
“Try to think out of the box. Always look for ‘advertising adventures’ [as] I call them, where you think you might be able to tweak something or make it work for you,” Bowersock says.
Even when his budget was tight, Bowersock found unconventional methods to enhance his name recognition in the community. He got a billboard at the local ice skating rink, negotiating down the price by offering to commit to a longer-term contract. And that’s when he started sponsoring a Little League team, which he still supports, as well as the Boy Scouts fundraiser.
“Any time I had an opportunity to talk to people, community stuff, things like that, I would always go and spend time there,” Bowersock adds. “People get to know you. That’s what works.”
Know your target and track the numbers. Shop owners must define their desired demographic and set up systems for monitoring how well their advertisements are reaching that demographic, Bowersock says.
He tracks phone numbers, uses web portals that monitor how web browsers are getting to his site, and he does customer questionnaires, which his employees administer to every new customer to find out how he or she heard about the shop.
Don’t become too attached. Once Bowersock has the numbers, he drafts and reviews weekly reports to see how effectively his advertisements are reaching his clientele. If something isn’t working, he cuts it. Things he’s dropped include direct mailers to noncustomers and ads in the local Penny Saver.
“There’ve been numerous marketing things that I’ve done that within a year period, I’ve ditched them, just because they didn’t work properly,” Bowersock says, “or I re-tweaked them and did them a different way, and maybe they did turn out right the next time.”
Put your money where your mouth is. Bowersock often puts more than 10 percent of his annual budget toward marketing and advertising. According to Cooper, that kind of financial contribution will set your brand apart from the competition.
The average shop owner is going to hover around maybe 4–5 percent, Cooper says. “Brian’s a doer. He’s not a guy who gets analysis paralysis, and now he dominates San Diego County.”
Becoming “The Auto Guy”
In 2006, a local news station (San Diego 6) was looking for a shop owner to do an auto advice segment on Saturday mornings.
Bowersock’s reputation, developed from years of brand building, preceded him. “Our morning news was looking for somebody who has been in San Diego for a while—has good reviews,” says Stephanie Becker, who at the time was a marketing consultant for the station. “We did some research and found West Escondido Auto and approached him.”
Bowersock originally turned the offer down. With a young son and full-time duties at the shop, he thought the Saturday morning commitment would be too much.
Then he had a chat with Cooper. “He told me I was an idiot if I didn’t do it,” Bowersock says.
That’s when Bowersock became the “Auto Guy,” and the payoff was big. Between 2007 and 2008, he saw his sales increase by roughly 20 percent.
He ran with the “Auto Guy” moniker, adding the billboards and bus tails to the new advertising arsenal. (He is still the only shop owner to advertise on bus tails in north San Diego County.) And last August, he took over as the host of a local radio show, “Auto Talk.” Bowersock buys the time for the hour-long program from the radio station, although advertisers on the program help to ease some of the cost.
Becker says that Bowersock has become a fixture in the community. “I know people recognize him from those segments,” Becker says. “He is the expert when it comes to auto repair.”
The spike Bowersock saw between 2007 and 2008 continued. From 2008 to 2009, sales jumped nearly 20 percent again. The next year, the shop managed more than 18 percent growth.
But Bowersock says a shop doesn’t need a TV or radio show to be successful. No matter what the budget is, every owner can find unique ways to build his or her shop into a local brand, he says.
“There are still cost-effective things for every size business that are out of the box,” Bowersock says, “that if you keep your eyes open, you can do.”