How to Revamp Your Traditional Approach to Marketing
Jennifer Moran is no stranger to the typical dealership’s approach to marketing, focusing heavily on TV and radio advertisements with cliche calls to actions. For years, she says, it was merely a given that a dealership would advertise in that way, with a dealer owner standing in front of a green screen or walking down a line or cars and yelling at customers to visit the dealership for service, sales or parts. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the best approach.
“I’m not a big traditional media fan,” says Moran, the executive manager of Carter Subaru, Volkswagen and Subaru Ballard locations. “I think you just start to blend in. Unless you have a ton of money and creative people, it’s hard to stand out at a dealer level.”
However, for years, the three Seattle-area dealerships relied heavily on those traditional media mediums: TV, radio, newspaper ads. And to some extent, it worked. But it didn’t brand the dealership particularly well or help identify the key differentiators.
Branding became increasingly important when the group’s Saab dealership—once its flagship location—closed and all efforts had to be funneled into growing the other brands.
“There were things we needed to shift,” Moran says. “Even great stores can become stagnant. You see the same thing over and over; they’re not looking outside of what they know.
“We went a little more grassroots. We started to look into, who could we partner with and get in front of their customers in a more intimate way? Where we’re interacting, they’re getting to know us and, oh, by the way, we service Subarus and VWs.”
That approach, although a monumental shift, has been enormously successful: Carter Motors Group went on to become the #1 dealer group for new car sales in the state of Washington in 2012, across all brands. Its Volkswagen store is in the top ten in the country for market penetration, and the two Subaru stores combined make Carter the second best-selling Subaru dealer in the nation, with an average of 185 cars sold per month.
The Impetus for Change
Before making the move to Carter in 2009, Moran worked at a Lexus dealership for 10 years—first as the new car manager, then the used car manager and eventually, the general manager. It was there that she honed her customer service philosophy.
“That was the game changer,” she says. “The quality of people within the dealership, the customer—it was something I was proud to be associated with. There’s a different standard because of the mere fact that it’s a luxury brand. The expectations were higher and the quality and experience of all the staff members were just different.
“But more than anything, the culture was just great. I had some fun and wonderful coworkers, it was a nice environment and you just enjoyed going to work, even in long hours.”
Moran says she owes most of who she is as a leader to that experience, and that it laid the groundwork for what she wanted to achieve at Carter.
“I think living in that environment and getting that leadership training and managerial training, I definitely brought it into my next workplace,” she says. “We have loyal customers and loyal employees. As soon as you spend a little time here, you know who Carter is. All you ever heard is that no one ever leaves; it’s impossible to get a job there.”
Sure, the brand had serious name recognition. But when Saab announced that it was shutting down, Carter was left one store down. Despite continuing the service business until last year, Moran says that business tapered off dramatically after a while as parts became harder to come by and customers realized that the brand was extinct.
At that same time in 2009, however, the executive team at Carter decided to open a second Subaru store—affording the opportunity to double down on marketing for Subaru.
“Because we had a Subaru store already, we sort of knew what to expect,” Moran says. “But we didn’t have super high expectations. We had lots of Saab customers that transitioned to Subaru. We knew those customers would stay loyal to us as long as we could… I think that I was optimistic that I would retain some business on the sales side.”
That being said, however, Moran also knew that the dealership would have to appeal to a wider subset of customers. So, to better identify that subset of customers, she began doing research.
“Subaru buyers are very environmentally conscious. They don’t want a big footprint. It matters how they contribute to that,” she says. “We didn’t have an EV, hybrid back then. So, trying to figure out a way to appease that buyer, which is just about everybody, was important. They’re very socially responsible.”
That idea of being environmentally conscious led Moran to research organizations in the community that could be effective partners. The organization she landed on was Mountains to Sound Greenway, a trust that helps protect the 1.5-million acre landscape in the area.
“We talked about planting trees and offsetting our carbon footprint by planting X amount of trees,” she says. “And we pitched to them the idea of planting a tree for every test drive on a new or certified pre-owned car and three more if you purchase the car.”
The idea is simple: to offset a year of the carbon emissions of your car, four trees have been planted. Those trees will live in the Mountains to Sound Greenway, the scenic byway along the I-90 corridor stretching from Seattle over Snoqualmie Pass into Central Washington, and actively absorb tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Over its lifetime (average life of 70 years for Northwest trees), those four trees will absorb one year of carbon emissions of a car getting 21 miles to the gallon that is driven 12,000 miles.
However, despite that pitch, the organization was less than thrilled at the prospect.
“They were a little skeptical about our commitment,” she says. “They were associating with a car dealership? That’s the opposite of what they are doing. They even consulted with the University of Washington. It was eye opening for us. But it was great. This organization cares so much about who they’re associated with and not just whoever hands them a check.”
So, Moran got to work making her case. She joined the board of directors to show her commitment and emphasized this would not be a mere six-month commitment. She also pointed out that by having the Mountains to Sound Greenway in all of Carter’s advertising, it would increase the organization’s brand awareness and visibility, as well.
The non-profit acquiesced, and to great effect: Today, Carter has given $1.4 million to the Greenway and planted more than 170,000 trees. The dealership also partnered with Mountains to Sound Greenway for an annual October tree planting celebration, where more than 300 volunteers come out and plant trees in the area.
The partnership has been so successful that it’s spurred a number of other initiatives, evolving into a full-fledged makeover of the dealership’s branding efforts:
Seattle Storm. A former college basketball player, Moran knew just how loyal WNBA fans are, especially in Seattle.
“We did a lot of research about who we could partner with,” she says. “We’re connecting with these fans, they’re loyal, they want to support companies who support our team. They wouldn’t think of going outside any of those supporters.”
So, Carter Subaru sponsors the team and its logo is everywhere: on the digital display, the crawl, a parking garage where you can park for free if you drive a Subaru. Moran has even combined partnerships, so that the dealership plants trees for every three-pointer made during the season.
“There’s a presentation center court. They hang trees up in the court for every three-pointer so there’s a volunteer. The players will even come out,” she says.
Bringing partners together. That idea of bringing partners together and creating a sense of community has become a huge focus for Moran recently.
“We have also a relationship with an organization that supports kids in foster care,” she says. “They pile kids in to a car and send volunteers to plant trees. It’s all organic but it’s evolved into becoming this whole community and what’s beneficial to us and what helps us sell and service cars is that we’re on the center of it.”
Sponsoring events. Carter has a street team of people who work outside the dealerships and are specifically devoted to working events that the dealership sponsors. Those include mountain biking events, a Northwest yoga conference, the zoo’s summer concert series, the seattle Men’s and Women’s Chorus, etc.
“We have a car on display, they’re out there to answer questions and hand out free car wash tickets,” Moran says. “That car wash is a sustainable company and all their water is recycled, so it stays in line with what our mission is.”
Update the logo. Carter Subaru also updated its logo, changing the color from blue to green and adding the “On the Road to Carbon Neutral” logo and tagline.
Switching up marketing campaigns. Carter has naturally shifted to online marketing initiatives to promote its events and partnerships, taking advantage of geo-targeting so it can pick up customers who might be near its various locations. However, believe it or not, the dealership still does some TV and radio advertising—but in a completely different way. Carter sponsors the studio for 97.3 KIRO Radio—now called Carter Subaru Studios—and partners with the Seattle Seahawks for the radio’s Charity of the Month. In addition, all of the radio spots are live, rather than canned or pre-recorded. With just a 30-second ad, Carter chose to have a spokesperson who drives a Subaru talk about what they did this past weekend or something of interest.
“It’s live and authentic,” Moran says.
When it comes to the TV advertising, the ads aren’t call to action. Instead, the commercials—which are always on around the nightly news—feature a car driving in a forest with someone talking about planting trees.
Measuring the Effectiveness
Naturally, when these ideas were brought up to the staff at Carter Subaru, Moran says they understandably “thought we were crazy,” she says.
“Especially the salespeople, if I don’t have an ad in the paper saying I can sell cars, how am I going to sell cars again?” she says. “They were concerned but they were pretty quickly on board.”
The fact is, Moran says, the ROI can’t be calculated immediately. This is a commitment; it’s not just planting trees for a month. And the results will be organic.
“I think that’s part of the problem with marketing. We will try something and we don’t give it enough time to really sink your teeth into it and give up on it. Then we try something else, the latest and greatest, and wonder why aren’t we increasing our business? We can’t commit to anything!” she says. “It is a risk. You have to be bought in to this. Everybody has to be convinced that it’s the right thing to do. If you’re not, then sure, it’s not going to work.”
To do that, Moran brought in the staff from Mountain Sound Greenway to talk about the organization, as well as provide information as to who Subaru buyers are and what they care about. She also reassured staff that they would remain the largest Subaru dealer in the area and that, in fact, this would help grow business. Finally, she stuck to it, even when she endured hate mail calling the dealership hypocritical for planting trees.
“We’ve tried to think of ways that we could track it but you really can’t because it’s so far reaching as well. It just has seemed impossible,” Moran says. “We do know that we’ve grown every year, we’ve maintained our position in the marketplace, CSI score is great.”
The other reason that the dealer group was able to take this chance is the co-op programs available.
“Subaru has a great co-op. It allows dealers to spend a lot more money than you would with an OEM that has a regional ad agency,” Moran says. “Subaru will reimburse up to 70 percent of your advertising as long as it’s approved. You can imagine how much more power that gives you. We have two dealership that are seven, eight miles apart. We advertise as one company. That allows us to have a larger voice in the market.”