BrandingWire: The Seven Deadly Marketing Sins of Auto Dealers

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This month on BrandingWire, the team is focusing on auto dealerships - a topic likely to produce some funny posts and hopefully identify certain specific areas in dire need of attention (or rather improvement) in that industry.

Let's face it: Of all the "for profit" companies across every conceivable industry, independently-owned auto dealers arguably have the worst marketing in the world, and a significant image problem. If you don't agree, you obviously never listen to FM radio in your car, you probably have TiVo, and your European-made cars either cost upward of $45K, or if they're pre-owned, came from a nationally-owned car dealership chain like CarMax.

For the rest of us, dealing with car dealerships in any way shape or form is neither a pleasant nor a relaxing experience: What could be a fun shopping endeavor is usually ruined by slimy and overly aggressive salespeople. The slightest lapse of focus during the hours-long haggling dance will cost you thousands of dollars you could have shaved off the final price. The marketing is as annoying and uninviting as it gets: Loud, cheap, poorly produced, dumb, and often even deceptive.

Simply put, everything about dealing with an auto dealer - especially when it comes to used cars - is about as fun and relaxing as bobbing for pennies in snake-infested swampwater.

In light of this, and in order to maybe inspire some auto dealers to make some positive changes in the way they do business, here is The Brandbuilder's list of the seven deadly marketing sins of automobile dealers. Some of the commentary on each one will provide some helpful advice to help dealerships avoid these pitfalls, and others are so self-explanatory that simply doing the exact opposite will have beneficial effects on both their business and their own personal reputation.


In no particular order, the seven deadly sins of auto dealers are:

1. Deception:

Have you ever spotted a killer deal on a car in a Saturday paper ad from a local auto dealer, only to find out when you get there that the car they were advertising has already been sold or has mysteriously gone out of stock? Yeah. Nice. How about those "We'll give you $5,000 cash back on any car trade! Bring us your old beater, and we'll give you $5,000 cash!" And when you put that offer to the test, it isn't exactly that easy?

Maybe it's just me, but tricking potential customers into coming to your retail location by lying to them isn't the best way to get things started on the right foot. Making contracts and fine-print too complicated for even experienced lawyers to understand every detail clearly is not all that kosher either.

Sleazy Salesmen didn't get that reputation by accident. I'm just not sure why so few of them (sales managers included) aren't doing more to make that negative image history.

2. Screaming in Ads:

Maybe my brain is wired differently from everyone else's, but here's how it works: If I am listening to the radio while in my car, and an ad comes on in which some annoying guy is screaming some sales pitch at the top of his lungs, I'm going to jump to the next preselected station faster than you can yell "NO MONEY DOWN!"

Listen... I understand the whole "screaming to be heard" thing. I get it. I've been to open air markets. I know it's a competitive world out there... but when you're recording a radio ad, you don't have to compete for anyone's attention. You have a captive audience. Literally. They're inside their cars. They're probably strapped-in, even. They're already listening, and as far as I can tell, they can only listen to one station (and one ad) at a time. Is it really necessary to scream at them? Perhaps more importantly, is screaming really the best way to communicate with potential customers?


If Volkswagen, BMW, Ford, and just about every auto manufacturer's national ads can manage to be cool, effective, and even sometimes inspiring without being loud, why is it that local dealers have to act like overcaffeinated lunatics on a cocaine high? Do they know something about a link between high decibel levels and the decision-making areas of the human brain that major national advertisers don't?

Nope. I didn't think so either.

3. Awful Creative:

There is a huge divide between the types of ads being produced by auto makers and the ads being produced by independently-owned auto dealerships. The first category is usually pretty effective, while the latter is absolutely horrendous in every way. Before some of you start proposing that major companies like Volkswagen, Volvo and Jaguar have huge Marketing budgets that allow for great creative, let me counter with this:

If "creativity is not device-dependent" (Bruce Mau), then creativity is not budget-dependent either: Anyone with a video camera, a laptop and $50 editing software can produce a clever, effective, and creative 30-second spot.

Likewise, anyone with a half way decent consumer-level 35mm or digital still camera and cheap photo/graphic design software (like JASC's sub $100 Paintshop Pro if Photoshop or other pro level software is out of reach) can produce fantastic print ads and website designs.

I routinely encounter terrific work being done on nickel-and-dime budgets, and horrendous work that I know cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

If high school kids with absolutely no work experience or formal training can produce world-class home-made "ads" for Apple, KFC and other brands to post on You Tube just for fun, surely, auto dealerships (no matter how back-woods) can come up with a) better ideas for their ads, and b) half-way decent ways to turn these ideas into effective productions. If they aren't accomplishing either task, they simply aren't really trying.

4. Circus-Act Mojo:

This could fall under #3, but it deserves its own category: Some auto dealerships like to use circus animals like elephants and chimps in their ads. Others like to dress up their staff in ridiculous outfits and act out lame little "skits."


The two latest local dealership ads to pollute the 864 airwaves with their horrendous skits involve a) a scuba-diving sales manager being eaten by a plastic toy shark in what may possibly be the worst blue-screen special effect sequence ever devised, and b) a not-so-sexy schoolteacher trying to create a parallel between a sex-ed filmstrip and... used cars at dealership XYZ. (The smirking greasy-haired tool sitting behind her in the empty classroom is either the sales manager, the dealership's owner, her boyfriend, or possibly all three.) The ad would just be dumb and poorly produced, but Greasball Fred putting himself in the picture with his paramour is downright creepy.

Please make it stop.


Sure, people will remember your ad (grinning chimps in diapers are memorable, as are toy sharks eating fat white guys in mumu swimsuits, as are two guys in tuxedos throwing buckets of water at each other - I'll give you that), but chances are that they won't remember the name of your dealership or what your latest promotion was. What do circus acts and bad costumes have to do with buying or selling cars? Nothing.

This isn't comedy. It isn't even entertainment. It's just dumb.

5. Poor Production Value:

Perhaps because most auto dealerships buy their advertising directly from media outlets (or through self-appointed middle-men) the creative and the production values tend to be pretty poor. Very few dealerships take the time to hire a creative (ad) agency to produce ads that don't look like the family videos Uncle Ralph edits on his Windows 98 PC.

And beware the lure of the "agency" that specializes in dealership/automotive marketing and advertising. Unless they also develop ads for one of the area's office of tourism, sporting events, cultural festivals and a plethora of other clients in a gaggle of industries, forget it. They're probably going to suck too.

Because many car dealerships may not know where to go to get help with their production needs, here are several tips anyone can use to make a cheaply produced ad look a tad bit more professional:

- If you can't find or afford a real stylist for the shoot, at least hire an experienced hair & makeup person. They aren't that expensive, and trust me, you need one. (Shiny, sweaty foreheads look horrible, and bad hair doesn't help sell anyone's image.) Maybe they can help with wardrobe a bit too while they're at it.

- Don't shoot people in bright sun. I know that the default ad concept is to have folks be outside, walking the lot to show off the cars and whatnot, but there are ways to shoot outdoor ads in such a way that the sun doesn't make them squint, blow out their skin, or make bright colors give viewers a headache. When in doubt, take a lighting guy on the shoot with you. And maybe an assistant or an intern to carry some reflector panels or diffusers or something. I might be a stickler for good lighting, but it makes an enormous difference in the way your ad looks.

- Don't use cheap transition effects. They were cool in 1980's Flock of Seagulls videos, but not anymore.

Correction: They weren't cool back then either.

- Get a sound guy to come along on the shoot. Especially if it's windy. Believe it or not, in the editing room, the big board with all of the knobs that looks like a giant equalizer can actually be used to clean up the sound quality and make the ad sound like it wasn't made in your neighbor's garage. Use it!

- Blue screens are banned from all auto dealership ads. Period. You aren't 20th Century Fox or Imagine Entertainment. What you're doing with blue screen technology isn't CGI. It's just crap. Don't even think about going there ever again.

I mean it.

- If your people can't look or sound natural on camera, hire actors. If you can't hire actors, hire the Quiznos thingamajingies.

- Likewise, anyone with a strong regional accent, a mullet, more than three gold rings on the fingers of any one hand, or whose wardrobe is inspired by Joe Pesci's character in Goodfellas is forbidden from ever being featured in any auto dealership ads,or my name ain't Nathan Arizona.

- Before you shoot a commercial, develop a storyboard. (Sketch out a comic-book like concept for the ad.) Actually go through the visual narrative you are trying to achieve and put it to paper. Think about silly stuff like camera angles and flow and context. Figure out how to best shoot and edit a 30-second spot that will have the visual and emotional impact you want it to have. There's a reason why the big boys of advertising do this. Copy their process. Learn how to produce professional work. Don't settle for the A/B/C method of A) Shooting somebody verbally delivering the copy by talking at the camera, B) inserting panning footage of the product and location, and C) inserting crappy graphics at the end of the ad. Bleh. Come on. You can do better than that.

Most locally produced TV ads are horrible because they are produced directly by the TV station's sales & marketing department - which isn't all that creative to begin with. That makes the ads cheaper and easy to produce, sure, but it ensures that they will be average at best. (Somewhere between cheap and terrible is usually the norm.) Do yourselves a favor and hire someone with talent and the know-how to write, produce, and possibly even direct your spots.

Again, it isn't that much more expensive, and you will more than get your money's worth.

The radio and print stuff is usually less bad, but when your control group rests squarely at the very bottom of the production quality bucket, it's hard to do worse, frankly.

6. Not Actually Building Value:

Q: Can every dealership really have the best deals and the cheapest prices?

A: Technically, no. Only one dealership can have the best deals and prices at any given time.

It's just science.

And since every sale comes down to a tedious haggling process anyway, is a dealership's main appeal really cheap prices? Is this what a dealership's marketing should mainly focus on?

How about shifting the conversation to things like the quality of their cars, the excellence of their service department, their steadfast honesty, or even the unusually pleasant experience of shopping for a car at their dealership?

(I don't care that it's locally or family-owned, or that everyone who works there goes to Church on Sunday like good little boys and girls. Give me something genuine and relevant to hook my hopes to.)

Speaking of trying to project a positive image, nothing screams "classy" like a bunch of bored car salesmen huddled outside the front door, smoking cigarettes while they wait for their next victim to drive in.

Automatic turnoff.

Overly aggressive salesmen don't work for most car shoppers either. All we really need from a car salesman is a friendly hello, and space. A good salesman is like a good waiter: Be there when I need you, but be out of sight when I don't. I don't need a chaperon, a buddy, or a stalker. I certainly don't need to be bombarded by pitch after pitch. I'm a grown-up. Your cheap cracker-jack box Jedi mind tricks don't work on me or anyone else with an IQ above 40.

(And at least, I can hang up on telemarketers, which makes them significantly less annoying than car salesmen. And that's saying something.)

But back to the point: When you sell cheap, you sell desperate. What you should be selling instead is reliability, performance, honesty, and peace of mind. You should be selling the brand behind every car in your lot. You should be selling class and professionalism. You should be selling value, and not discounted promises. This isn't just about the message you incorporate in your ads, but also (perhaps more so) about all of the actual shopping and aftermarket experiences your customers will get to enjoy.

7. Acting like a typical car dealership:

Let's play a quick game of word association. I'll write a word, and you tell me the first word that comes to your mind. (Try to make it an adjective that best describes that word.)

Here we go:



Soapbox preacher.

Used car salesman.

See where we're going with this?

As I've mentioned before, car salesmen (especially when they're selling used cars) already have pretty poor reputations. They're usually seen as a being sleezy, not particularly trustworthy, etc. So car dealerships have some trust issues to overcome. A forward-thinking car dealership owner/operator would be well served by an effort to distance himself/herself from this type of image and negative expectation.

What's the smartest thing a car salesman can do? Casually but enthusiastically greet the customer with a smile, but without walking to them. Tell them you'll be with them in a couple of minutes. Ask them if they need anything before you come back. Then disappear, and come back to ask them if they need help, and take it from there.

Why? Because the reflex of any and all shoppers is to say "I'm just looking, thanks." Even if they have a question, they will automatically push away a salesperson who walks up to them. Better to give the customer their space, make them feel comfortable and appreciated, and let them dictate the way in which the conversation will take place.

Give them their space. Respect their space. Meet them half way and sell yourself as being helpful, friendly and honest instead if just trying to make a sale.

Aside from the specific sales tips, what we're talking about here is differentiation: Making your dealership stand out from other dealerships - not just by producing better creative, but by truly being different - perhaps starting with the appearance, attitude, friendliness, charisma and mindset of your sales force. This is a good first step in effectively building a great reputation and developing a strong referral business.

Here are the five basic steps to get you started:

1) Decide that you need to be different.
2) Understand why you need to be different.
3) Decide how to be different.
4) Decide to commit to 1-3.
5) Create means by which this can be communicated to both employees and potential customers. (Advertising, word-of-mouth, customer experience design, revamping internal processes, hiring the right people, extensive training of employees, attention to detail, etc.)

The answer to #1 and #2 could be simply to be better than the competition for the sake of having a more successful business. It could also be about having moral reasons for not cutting corners where others have (deceptive advertising, sleazy sales tricks, etc.) It could also simply be about wanting to be better. (Pride in one's work and fostering a good reputation are more important than maximizing profits at all costs to many people, and I can certainly relate to that.)

The answer to #3 is simply about observation: Find out what you and your potential customers hate about your competitors, and do the exact opposite. If you find that most people hate being followed by salesmen, teach your staff to be more subtle with their stalking. If the haggling process is a drag, get rid of it, or make it more customer-friendly. Find out if cheap ugly ties and dirty shoes on your sales staff are a turnoff. Look at everything, from the way cars are organized on your lot to how you choose to design your lobby and offices. Details like the type of coffee you brew and how it alters the way your offices smell can make a huge difference. Do you offer your potential customers a cup of delicious coffee or some home-made cookies when they walk in? Are you using cheap paper cups, or actual china? Are your people friendly and happy? Is your lot a place where customers will feel comfortable, or uncomfortable? Will they be impressed with it, or turned off? Will they want to actually hang out there, or get away as fast as they can? Are you giving them any reason to talk to their friends and co-workers about you? (This could be positive or negative.) Do your research.

Get past the lure element of your business. The object of the game isn't just about getting as many people as possible to come to your lot, or throwing an ever changing team of salesmen at them. I know it's a numbers' game but if you are turning off 94% of your visitors, you are giving away 94% of your business to your competitors. Why spend all of your budget and energy on bringing so many people to your business if all you manage to do is chase them away when they get there? That makes absolutely no sense.

The decision to be different, to actually stand out, to create a positive reputation for yourself in your industry, and to actually create a brand for yourself could be all the momentum and sense of direction you need to turn that 6% closing rate into 12%. Or 20%. Or more.

* * *

Car dealerships are retail businesses, just like restaurants, night clubs, record stores, hotels and coffee shops, to name just a few. As such, there is no reason why their marketing, ethics, or focus on customer happiness should be any worse than businesses in other industries.

Bad ads are worthless and send the wrong message.

Deceptive marketing tactics will destroy a business faster than you can say "lawsuit."

Dreadful customer experiences are the kiss of death for any repeat business or word-of-mouth referrals.

What would happen to your bottom-line if 90% of people who come to your restaurant took a look at your menu and walked out? What would happen to your business if your reputation was so horrendous that 90% of your customers told all of their friends, family members and co-workers never to do business with you? Why should car dealerships be any different?

Wowing the customer, creating a bond of trust with them, making them feel happy and excited about their purchase before they even get to test drive a car, during the signing, and even long after they've driven off the lot (making them want to come back or share their positive experience with others) are all crucial things to focus on.

Call me crazy, but a car dealership isn't just a sales organization. It has to be much more than that.

On the flip side, being just like everybody else, focusing on pushing the sale instead of helping it along, not taking care of a customer as well after the sale as you did before, being deceptive, selling discounts instead of value, spending money on annoying and ineffective ads... these are all ways to earn get absolutely nowhere fast, and in this case, perpetuate a negative image that does nothing to help anyone in the auto dealership world grow, prosper, or even feel unabashed pride in a good day's work.

Why more car dealerships don't get this is still beyond me. Hopefully, this and the rest of the posts from this month's BrandingWire project will help change things for the better.

One can hope.

Have a great week, everyone. ;)

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