At Hamburg Garage, you'll see a shield that bears the look of an antique coat of arms, black with a shade of red coating the outside, with two joint pistons jutting out from within.
At Cottman Transmission and Total Auto Care, you’ll find the Cottman Man, your go-to online expert for transmission care.
Two marketing efforts, two completely different types of brands—and one purpose.
“You want your brand, your marketing, your image to represent the type of work you do,” says Andy Massoll, owner of Hamburg Garage and Farmington Garage in Michigan. “If somebody owns Bob’s Auto and has some generic sign hanging up, that’s what customers' expectations are: generic. ‘This isn’t a clean or professional business,’ they’ll think.
“It all ties together. Even if you have great techs in the back, their expectations have been lowered. If you want to provide world-class service, you should look like a world-class facility.”
And, really, that’s the dichotomy to Massoll: There’s the service you want to provide, and the service the entire public thinks you’ll provide after a casual glance at your business. Before potential customers agree to become lifetime customers, they’ll need to trust the brand to which they’re committing. And perfecting that brand—whether it’s done by completely renovating your facility like Massoll did, or by earning trust through animated experts like Cottman Transmission did—is a process.
Both of these successful operations took Ratchet+Wrench on a tour of their marketing efforts—one physical, one digital, and both indicative of the power of branding.
SHOP STATS: HAMBURG GARAGE Location: WHITMORE, MICH. Operator/s: Andy Massoll Staff Size: 4 Average Monthly Car Count: 120 Annual Revenue: $750,000
SHOP STATS: FARMINGTON GARAGE Location: WHITMORE, MICH. Operator/s: Andy Massoll Staff Size: 6 Average Monthly Car Count: 300 Annual Revenue: $1.2 million
The Target Customer
The target customers of Hamburg and Farmington Garages are the residents of small Michigan towns. With few auto repair options, they want a nearby operation that is professional, yet grounded, and represents the community.
Old-School Service, New-School Technology
One morning, an 80-year-old man wandered into Martin Automotive, walked right up to Andy Massoll, and said with a smile:
“I appreciate you cleaning up my shop.”
Back in 2013, this left Massoll a little perplexed—after all, he and his former business partner, James Snider, had just bought Martin Automotive from another man; they were brainstorming ideas for how to renovate the building, redo the color scheme, and design a new logo for the shop; they were in the midst of trying to re-establish the good name of a shop that, prior to the previous owner, had been a staple in the Whitmore Lake, Mich., community since 1918 when it opened as Hamburg Garage.
Yet, here was this man—the grandson of the original founder of Hamburg Garage, holding a wooden box filled with old receipts from the 1920s and hundreds of photos of his family working in the shop—calling the facility his shop.
And Massoll didn’t mind one bit. In fact, he made a suggestion, then and there:
“I asked him, ‘Would you mind if I changed the business back to its original name?’”
From there, the slogan for the new-and-improved Hamburg Garage was born: “Personal service with modern technology.” In fact, he used that exact same message at the second shop he bought in 2016, Farmington Garage in Farmington, Mich., which is already pulling in $1.2 million annually. Massoll wanted each community to know his team administered old-school customer care and utilized new-school technology—and every aspect of his Hamburg’s brand overhaul needed to reflect that.
A Tour of Massoll’s Brand
Before any building renovations or marketing campaigns were performed, Massoll crowdsourced. He spoke with family, friends, employees and people in the community, pitching his vision for the shop’s brand, brainstorming how Hamburg Garage’s logo could capture an old-school-yet-new-school approach.
The end result incorporated the shop’s original logo—a shield—with two pistons extending out from the bottom of the shield. Massoll kept the original black-and-white color scheme but introduced a shadow of red around the outside. And right up top, the logo reads: “The Hamburg Garage, Est. 1918.”
He replicated that logo for Farmington Garage.
Years ago, McDonald’s entire image and restaurant design used to be hokey—“ugly yellow and red,” as Massoll describes it.
These days, however? McDonald’s has modernized its image.
“If we’re going to McDonald's and it looks like a hotel lobby, what are we doing at auto repair shops?” Massoll asks. “People's expectations are higher. They want the feeling they get at dealerships.”
So when Massoll discusses the $100,000 renovation his facility experienced, he doesn’t mind the eyerolls he might induce from shop owners reading this article.
“People are missing the mark in our business,” he says. “They don’t want to make that $100,000 investment and rebrand. They don't see value in doing that.”
Massoll has, however, seen the value firsthand—twice. He was born into the auto care business, spending his youth sweeping the floors of his father’s shop, Curt’s Service in Oak Park, Mich., and eventually moving into a management role in the 2000s. And in 2005, Massoll convinced his father to undertake a major facility renovation, which led to redesigning the interior and repainting the exterior. Just seven years later, the shop was able to double its size from seven to 14 bays.
And in Massoll’s eyes, it was all thanks to that renovation.
He was so sure of it, in fact, that after he had moved on from his father’s shop, Massoll employed the very same architect to redesign the reinstated Hamburg Garage, the revenue for which has risen from under $600,000 to over $750,000 in the past two years with just four employees.
The end result is two facilities that give the customer a dealership feel and and represent both Hamburg and Farmington’s brand in every aspect:
The red-and-black color scheme of the logo carries into the Hamburg facility’s paint job. The building’s walls are covered in white, with red beams brandishing the black roof. Right between two of the garage doors rests an old air compressor painted with a fresh coat of bright red.
The design was tweaked for Farmington, which replaced the white paint job with a darker hue, making it look as though the building is covered in seasoned bricks. And with windows surrounding the entrance, you can see every inch of its modernized lobby.
While the Hamburg lobby is brandished with a black-and-white checkered floor, equipped with red flower pots and black leather chairs, it almost appears modest compared to Farmington, where the granite floors and spacious lobby give off that hotel feel Massoll strived for from the beginning.
A standalone desk greets customers as they walk into Farmington Garage. On each side of the desk where the service advisor stands are two waiting areas, where customers can either set up at a tall desk or relax in front of a flat-screen television and fireplace.
Throughout the lobby, brightly lit six-pointed stars and modern light fixtures hang from the ceiling.
“[Customers] are used to these dilapidated shops that smell likes tire,” Massoll says. “Here, they walk in they front door and say, ‘Wow, this is really nice.’ They say it’s the nicest auto shop they've ever stepped foot in.
“It gives them confidence. They think, ‘If they can afford this, they must be doing something right.’”
The Repair Floor
A big glass wall in the lobby provides a view right into the shop floor, where Massoll’s ASE master–certified technicians perform repair work on the immaculately kept white repair area. The room is brightly lit as the LED lights bounce off the white epoxy floors, providing a great view of the room and all the new-school tools and equipment Massoll advertises as part of his marketing.
Those shop floor windows play right into the most important part of Hamburg and Farmington’s brand: the people.
“We need to be transparent and show people what's going on behind the scenes,” he says. “They see all the technology you need to repair today’s vehicles and the people you want fixing them.”
In a small town where he says residents will drive no further than five miles for automotive repair, Massoll understands the necessity of appearing rooted in the community. That’s why the service advisor awaits walk-ins at a standing desk; why you can watch technicians working on vehicles; why you can talk to the owner if need be; and why profiles for Massoll’s employees are available on the shops’ websites.
Through staff meetings and outings, Massoll preaches the importance of providing the kind of old-school service the community has expected from a facility nearing 100 years of presence in the community.
“I really tried to express that to everyone and build the culture early on,” he says. “So, now we don’t just talk the talk—we really walk the walk. They see the extent of effort we go through on every vehicle every time.”
SHOP STATS: COTTMAN TRANSMISSION AND TOTAL AUTO CARE Location: 51 locations in 20 states Staff Size: 300+ Annual Revenue: $30+ million
The Target Customer
The target customers of Cottman Transmission rely on Internet searches to find auto repair shops. The operation’s typical customers are families willing to pay high-dollar prices for expensive transmission work.
The Digital Sweet Spot
Even if you’ve never stepped foot inside a Cottman Transmission and Total Auto Care facility, there’s a decent chance you’ll feel like you might have—that’s been Derik Beck’s goal since day one, anyway.
When Beck, Cottman’s vice president of digital marketing, and his team conceived the company’s animated mascots, blog and presence on Angie’s List, it wasn’t just some off-the-cuff suggestion or a random stroke of genius—it was the result of hundreds of hours of researching and testing digital platforms that could help extend the company’s 20-state reach.
As Beck puts it: It’s all about finding that sweet spot.
“Where is the sweet spot?” he asks. “In this business, we're all marketers trying to find that sweet spot.”
After testing social media advertisements, writing hundreds of blog posts, filming dozens of videos, commissioning artists, and responding to each and every review posted for each of Cottman’s 51 shops, Beck and his three-man digital marketing team have a pretty good idea of what works best for promoting the Cottman brand. Together, they have pushed the company as a trustworthy, go-to auto care facility for high-dollar transmission work.
Every single marketing campaign and digital action is tracked in what Beck calls the company’s “data warehouse,” which has proven to the Cottman franchise year after year that your digital identity means just as much to your brand as your shop’s physical presence.
A Tour of Cottman’s Brand
The Animated Experts
“You just had your transmission rebuilt and it seems to be working fine, but the shop wants you to bring it back for a 10-day recheck,” says a woman offscreen.
Then, she pops into frame, assuring you: “Don't worry, there’s no problem. The 10-day recheck is a valuable part of the rebuild procedure.”
Meet the Transmission Physician, Cottman’s newest animated automotive expert. Earlier this year, she joined the Cottman Man—who has been a virtual spokesman for the company for three years—in representing the 51-location network. Since then, the Transmission Physician has been featured in several videos that highlight Cottman’s dedication to transmission care.
While the Cottman Man—who has his own coloring book for kids—has been the company’s go-to expert on auto care tips, the Transmission Physician focuses strictly on transmissions and what customers can expect after their vehicles experience transmission work.
She also offers the network a unique way of reaching its female customers, says Rebecca Ledbetter, the former digital marketing coordinator for Cottman.
“Females are underrepresented in the auto industry,” she says, “so it’s our way of honoring them for how much they’ve helped build the auto repair business.”
By adding the Transmission Physician to its lineup, Cottman is now not only better reach a female demographic, Ledbetter says, but it’s also able to better promote its transmission services, which are important to its overall work mix.
“This is an important distinction, as many Cottman centers have expanded into total auto care and repair. But, at its core, Cottman centers are, and always have been, transmission-specialty repair centers,” Ledbetter says.
The Cottman Blog
If you need proof of why Cottman’s blog has been so effective over the past several years, look no further than the banner brandishing the blog’s home page:
- Top 50 Automotive Mechanics Blogs
- Best Blog Website
- Top 100 Auto Repair and Maintenance Blogs
- Winner of the Automotive Communications Award
As you scroll on down the page, in addition to the downloadable coupons and links to nearby Cottman facilities, you’ll find blog post after blog post offering tips on A/C care, washing salt away after winter driving and how to explain car trouble to a service advisor. Each page features one of Cottman’s animated experts, which guides the reader through car care tips (sometimes with a video).
In addition to car care tips, the blog will highlight any philanthropy performed by the company, stories from annual Cottman national conventions, and any awards Cottman has won for its web-based educational video series. Some of the blog posts are even targeted toward potential employees.
Through these informative posts, Beck says Cottman’s SEO improved significantly in areas where Cottman facilities are local to web traffic. Visits to the Cottman website have increased significantly over the past three years, and conversions (the metric for measuring the profitability of your digital marketing efforts, Beck says) have helped raise annual revenue to $37 million in the same period.
To Beck, what’s especially astonishing about the Cottman’s successful partnership Angie’s List is that, at the height of its powers, Angie’s List approached Cottman.
“Corporate approached us and asked to do a joint video,” Beck says. “They said, ‘Because of your reviews and how you’re treating reviews on our website, we want to partner.’”
Five years ago, that partnership led to a joint video that was advertised to all Angie’s List customers. Back then, Beck and his team were well ahead of the curve, responding to every review of a Cottman facility on Angie’s List. In Beck’s eyes, this makes the 51-shop operation feel like your average, trustworthy local shop to customers.
In total, back in 2012, 26 percent of Cottman’s facilities had achieved a Super Service Award from Angie’s List, which indicated a business that presents “exemplary levels of service” to customers on the website. Today, every single facility has been recognized by Angie’s List.
“Since nobody wants to repair a transmission, we make sure we’re on certain websites because people read reviews and want to know if service was adequate before they spend $3,000,” Beck says.
That’s really been the key to Angie’s List, which draws a different audience than most online review sites, Beck says. The kind of third-party validation from Angie’s List has helped Cottman gain notoriety from customers willing to pay the high costs for transmission care over the past five years, contributing to the increased web traffic that has helped overall profits increase year after year.
“We’re doing a lot for a little budget,” Beck says. “When a customer looks at Cottman online, they see all the areas we’re presenting to them, they look at how reputable of a company we are, how trustworthy we are. With your transmission, you want someone trustworthy to repair it.”