Unconventional Marketing

Jan. 1, 2015
Jim Anderson of Iowa’s Anderson Automotive uses unconventional tactics to draw customers

You’re driving down the road, when something catches your eye in the side view mirror. What? No. That couldn’t possibly be … 

You blink twice, shake your head and look again—sure enough, that’s an upside down van passing you in the left lane. 

Confused and questioning your mental fitness to drive, the van—or whatever it is—approaches with its wheels in the air, and side graphics that ask, “Wanna know why?” Aside from its name, “Belly Up Van,” the only other markers are a QR code and logos for both Facebook and Twitter. 

If what you just witnessed doesn’t make sense, you’re not alone. Once you arrive at your destination, you tell others what you saw and think, “I do want to know why,” as you plug the name of the unusual vehicle into the Facebook search bar. After you browse around, amused at others who spotted the van, you click “Like.”

At that point, it’s official: Jim Anderson’s crazy ideas for marketing his Marion, Iowa, shop, Anderson Automotive, have wheels, even if they happen to be upside down. 

The Belly Up Van is but one of many imaginative marketing ideas, including several other wild concept cars, used at Anderson Automotive. Their impacts are hard to track, says Anderson, but the overall result is a palpable sense of community goodwill, strong word-of-mouth referrals and first-time customers that say, “Oh, I know you guys!” when noticing one of the bizarre company cars parked out front. 

As he sees it, guerilla marketing has been the key to turning a $180,000 business into a half-million-dollar shop in only two years, while adding just one employee. 

“When [new customers] come to my door, they’ve got a way shorter guard built up, if any,” Anderson says. “That’s the impact it has had on my business.”

Guerilla Marketing, With a Zebra

Small businesses looking to stand out now have seemingly infinite broadcast options to consider—print, web, direct mail, radio, TV, billboards, newsletters. With such a range of choices, owners can’t be faulted for overlooking eye-catching ideas like building a zebra-skinned shop truck, driving around a “naked” Pontiac Fiero or dreaming up a full-size van that goes down the road upside down. 

When it comes to marketing, Anderson doesn’t do normal. True to the definition of guerilla marketing, his concepts tend to be low-cost, attention-getting and designed to build curiosity and brand awareness, rather than wrangling people directly toward his front doors. 

As for why he chose guerrilla marketing over something more traditional, Anderson says it all goes back to a foundational business concept: “knowledge breeds confidence, confidence breeds enthusiasm and enthusiasm sells.” 

His first and most visible project vehicle is his shop truck, a 1997 Dodge Dakota wrapped in zebra skin, an idea voted on by a random group of customers and suppliers. The next was the “Jekyll and Hyde” Fiero with half of its body panels removed. In their place is the business phone number and a soft marketing message: “Are you tired of auto repair hassles? Come see how the other half lives.” 

The shop’s concept cars are used to drive around running errands, but are also strategically parked in prominent locations around town, like car cruise-ins and school functions, to silently attract interest wherever they go. 

The latest, the Belly Up Van, is the combination of a Ford E-150 conversion van and a ‘95 Ford Ranger, cobbled together with the Ranger as the propulsion, wrapped in the skin of the big, square van. Once assembled, he took the van on a 2,500-mile journey to Southern California to attend a training seminar, where it gathered looks, guffaws and selfie-takers along the way. 

“I like to do things that make people go, ‘What?’ and make them stop, because grabbing somebody’s attention is easy,” Anderson says. “Getting their attention and holding it long enough, that’s what this van experiment is [all about].” 

After gathering hundreds of likes and countless amusing roadside conversations, another shop owner at the Management Success! fall convention liked the innovative marketing vehicle so much that he made Anderson a $5,000 cash offer on the spot. When presented with the offer, he decided to sell, as he had a handful of tweaks he hoped to make on a second version. 

The first Belly Up Van now lives amid the palms of Huntington Beach, and construction on version 2.0 began immediately after returning. Even so, a soon-to-arrive replacement wasn’t enough to sooth customers disappointed that he sold a van that was well on its way to becoming yet another local fixture positively associated with Anderson Automotive. 

“The proceeds from the first one completely financed Belly Up Van version 2.0 (which should already be on the road) and also paid for the entire two-week trip and the convention,” Anderson says. “So I was able to share this unique concept with another shop owner to use for his business, and I got a new and improved one and an awesome experience of a lifetime.”

Low Cost, High Impact

While turning two vehicles into one isn’t without a price—about $2,500 not including five weeks working at home during evenings and weekends—the centerpiece of Anderson’s marketing efforts for his eight-bay shop are low-cost “promotional tools” that have a big impact, even if their true outcomes are difficult to track.

Anderson dedicates 5–8 percent of his total budget to marketing, an amount he says “you’ve got to work hard to spend.” 

His more traditional marketing efforts include regular no-cost car care clinics, random generosity like a recent contest at a community hockey game, car giveaways, hand-addressed newsletters that reward existing customers with discounts, a customer referral program and other promotions, and volunteering to speak at various local events to increase knowledge about car repairs and the industry as a whole. 

“I have a purpose statement on our front counter, and an excerpt from that is continuing to improve how our industry is viewed in the customer’s eyes,” he says. “If you go out and talk to people, then all of a sudden you become viewed as the expert in your industry and expert in your area.”

Rather than expressly working to attract new customers, Anderson places a higher value on rewarding the loyalty of existing customers. With his new-customer rewards program, existing customers who refer someone receive a $10 gift certificate to the local Mexican restaurant. 

In the same vein, newsletters to existing customers include rotating promotional discounts, though he avoids offering discounts as a means of attracting new customers. 

“There’s limited loyalty with a client like that,” he says of discount-hunting customers. “They’re just going to go to whoever’s got the best coupon next time. It’s hard to get loyalty from that type of client, so I don’t chase them.”

One clear payoff from the shop’s multi-fronted efforts came in 2010, when it won the Better Business Bureau’s coveted Integrity Award. It’s a recognition designed to reward businesses that exemplify the consumer advocacy organization’s commitments to honesty and accountability. 

Anderson Automotive is the only auto repair business in Iowa to ever win the award, and it continues to leverage the honor across its website and social media, and in various marketing materials. 

Customer Communication

Anderson’s shop takes to Facebook to share construction updates on the latest project vehicles, as well as details about its car giveaways, car repair clinics and general maintenance and driving tips. 

In the coming year, he plans to increase his guerilla marketing by creating a formal schedule with additional local events where the cars can do their duty. He’s also hoping to give presentations about the cars and the concept of guerrilla marketing for other small businesses in the area. 

As he moves forward with a business on pace to grow 15 percent in 2014, Anderson also has a new challenge with a new role as an on-site inspector for Management Success!. He attributes much of his success and recent revenue growth to his training through the California-based auto shop consultancy, and hopes to use his experience to help other shops expand and prosper.

“It’s all about bringing in a separate set of eyes to look at things,” he says. “When you bring in an outside view, the smaller things that can make bigger differences become much more apparent.” 

By helping fellow shops grow and evolve, Anderson expects to get a rush, such as when he speaks to community groups back at home, while improving the industry in the eyes of its customers. 

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