• Why We Still Love Automotive Retail Advertising

    car dealers; marketing; advertising
    The high pressure of marketing for automotive retail sales can be challenging but rewarding if you understand it.

    The Badger Commercials for the Johnson Automotive Group

    There’s a great story about the Johnson Automotive Group, a retail group of automotive dealers located in the southern states. The story has been confirmed by several news stories.

    About twelve years ago, the Johnson Automotive Group contacted The Martin Advertising Agency to inquire about them handling their automotive advertising. The Martin Agency (one of our favorites) also created the GEICO campaign and handles other national accounts, including UPS, Timberland, and Oreo.

    Johnson Automotive was dismissed and shunned by the agency after numerous calls and inquiries. They simply weren’t interested in handling car dealers because the business was so volatile. They told Johnson Automotive pretty much the same thing.

    However, the Johnson Automotive Group persisted. Finally, The Martin Agency relented and said they would take on the advertising, but the auto dealer group had to go along with their strategy (and big agency costs).

    Johnson Automotive agreed. The agency put together a brilliant campaign by creating the famous badger character. The agency and the president of the dealership group flew to Hollywood. Johnson Automotive agreed to pay for the construction of the animatronic character (about $32,000), and the agency created about ten brilliant spots that cost about $250K each (link here to view the spots:

    The campaign yielded stellar results, and many in the automotive industry consider it a benchmark for creative strategy rarely equaled in tier three automotive advertising.

    Auto Retail Is a Franchise Business

    Since we started our agency in 1995, we have created agency campaigns for remarkable brands such as D.G. Yuengling, Penn Medicine, Rita’s Italian Ice, and a few Atlantic City casinos. But no business has challenged us like automotive retail.

    Auto retail is fundamentally a franchise business in which the goal is to gain market share: first, from your closest geographic competitor store of the same brand; second, from similar brand stores located nearby.

    The problem is that the manufacturer has strict rules on the advertising of new cars because car dealerships are a part of a franchise. The stores must all look alike, and almost every new vehicle you sell must be advertised identically to that of your competitor. That includes lease offers, most of the rebates, etc.

    That’s like a McDonald’s owner trying to convince their customers to buy from their McDonald’s instead of the one less than ten miles down the street.

    How Do We Create a Unique Selling Proposition for Stores and Offers that Are Identical?

    As a marketing communications company, how do we create a unique selling proposition for the franchised automotive store? Every piece of new vehicle advertising for companies such as Honda, Nissan, and Toyota must be submitted to the manufacturer for approval prior to using it. That includes hundreds of pieces of content created monthly, including daily social media posts, website sliders, and radio and TV advertising, and none can offer a different sale item from that of their competitors.

    To make it even more challenging, thanks to the proliferation of information via the internet, every educated customer has a pretty good idea of what the net cost of a new vehicle is to the dealer. That leaves many stores making a majority of their profits from used car sales and service.

    Most volume-leading stores simply outspend their competitors for top-of-the sales-funnel advertising such as radio and television and for farther-down-the-sales-funnel marketing such as an AdWords campaign.

    Their marketing has no unique selling proposition and features such banal creative as a video or TV spot of the owner, the general manager, or an attractive woman walking through the showroom advertising $199/month or $179/month leases and 0.9% loan rates, followed by the manufacturer-issued B-roll video of the vehicle.

    If the dealership uses cable TV buys, all the automotive spots are usually stacked up in one local commercial break. Because the spots from different dealers look so similar, it becomes almost impossible to tell the difference between them.

    Creating a Unique Character or Situation for the Brand

    We often wonder why some of these tier three automotive advertisers do not embrace strategies similar to those of national advertisers—namely, create compelling creative resulting in top-of-mind brand awareness for their otherwise same-looking store.

    In the last fifteen years, we began using strategies similar to those of national advertisers (for a lot less in production costs), and it yielded amazing results. The added benefit was that it didn’t require outspending the volume-leading dealership to get the same sales results.

    We created memorable and funny characters or situations that could be used month after month and carried through to all the digital marketing components. The characters and situations were visually compelling with great top-of-mind awareness. Often, they were funny, meaning they created a good visceral feeling for the viewer.

    In the video (for online and TV), the characters have a distinct voice. When you heard the characters on the radio, you immediately visualized them by remembering them from the video (i.e., when you hear the GEICO Gecko on the radio, you know it’s not just an Australian guy speaking; it’s a talking gecko).

    Automotive War Stories

    Some auto clients trusted us enough to give us access to their Vin Solutions Customer Relations Management (CRM) software system. We could measure every piece of our advertising (traditional and digital) from the moment the prospect called in or logged onto the website to the appointment, sale, and follow-up.

    We saw immediate results: appointments grew as much as 50 percent over six months and market share for new car sales grew by 25 percent during the same period.

    One auto dealer client, where the manufacturer scores each store’s digital marketing campaign, gave us a digital marketing score in the top ten in their zone of 117 dealer stores (it had previously ranked at the bottom of the zone).

    However, there were challenges. One of our clients hired a new general manager soon after the owner had hired us. The new GM wanted to bring in his own agency. He even changed the name of the leads in the CRM system so we wouldn’t get credit for the leads. It took a year, but he was eventually successful in bringing in his agency. After another six months, he was fired.

    When we began in the 1990s, another car dealer used to call our business line after hours and dictate the new radio and TV spots over the phone to our voice mail, wanting us to transcribe the copy. The only problem was he would give us two minutes of dictated copy for a one-minute radio spot. He told us to do our best to squeeze the voice-over in audio production so it would fit, which sounded like the fast-talking guy from the old FedEx commercials.

    After all that, we still like the challenge of tackling automotive advertising. Like our agency friend in the image at the beginning of this article, the process can be a little painful knowing the high pressure of auto retail, but the results can be quite satisfactory when you see the hard work pay off with increased sales. If we can help our auto clients sell more cars, all other marketing and advertising should be a breeze!

    Cerami Creative is a full-service digital and traditional marketing company founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1995. Cerami Creative has worked with national, regional, and local companies like Yuengling Beer, Penn Medicine, and Rita’s Water Ice. For a free evaluation of your company’s marketing strategy, contact Cerami Creative at or call 215-893-3004.