Dealer Ops

Laughter Can be the Best Medicine for Building Customer Trust

A sense of humor can be an important asset in any business. But Jim Trenary had no idea just how important it could be to the top line of his automotive group until the head of his advertising agency came to him with an offbeat idea.

About 15 years ago, said Trenary, who runs three dealerships in the St. Louis area, Ben Turec screened a television spot he put together from several years’ worth of bloopers swept up from his ad agency’s cutting room floor. Blown lines, pratfalls, ornery animals; it all looked pretty funny if you were seeing it for the first time. And Trenary, a man who’s quick to find the humor in things, was always right in the thick of things, laughing at every wrong turn.

Trenary’s initial response: skepticism.

“Will you trust me on this?” said the risk-taking head of Turec Advertising. “And I let him run them 50 percent of the time,” recalled Trenary. “When I got back that month from a trip, we had doubled our business, so we switched to 100 percent outtakes.”

Since then, the bloopers and quips have become standard fare, tacked onto the end of each new spot. But there’s more to the ad strategy than earning a few quick laughs. The spots showed the human side of Trenary and a dealership that could goof up now and again and laugh about their own sometimes less-than-perfect performance.

“They’ve become pretty popular,” said Trenary. “I think it makes us appear real to people.”

‘Real’ doesn’t come cheap at Jim Trenary Automotive Group. Trenary spends around a million dollars a year getting his marketing message out. He runs print ads about twice a month, but that’s more about keeping up awareness with the newspaper’s readers than trying to compete with the big advertising spreads run by a couple of the dealers in his area. Most of Trenary’s money goes to television, which lays claim to two-thirds of his advertising budget. Trenary has also been shifting funds out of radio, so he can promote his dealerships more heavily on the Web. 

GM has provided help on the e-commerce side of the business and the dealership has an active eBay sales front to promote sales of used cars and trucks. It also helps to have two sons in the business. Kyle Trenary is the assistant comptroller for the group and Tyler Trenary is the new car manager. It was Kyle’s idea to post the TV ads on YouTube, a phenomenon that Jim Trenary had heard absolutely nothing about.

Advertising in Tough Times
If you want to survive in this market, said Trenary, you have to grab any legitimate advantage you can find. Trenary has two Chevy dealerships and a Buick, Pontiac, GMC operation, and he can spot trouble when he sees it. These days, he said, the challenges facing everyone in the car business have never been tougher.

“Auto dealers right now are pretty desperate,” said Trenary. “A lot of dealers are putting prices in the paper they can’t meet, advertising cars they don’t have. Things like military discounts and stuff like that; anything they can to get people into the showroom.” The current advertising trends are just making the whole marketing environment more poisonous for dealers, said Turec.

“We’d look at some of these prices in the newspaper with all the disclaimers, and we couldn’t figure out how somebody got to that price,” he noted. “If we couldn’t figure out the price, how is the consumer going to get there?”

So they went back to the drawing board to win people’s trust. Starting in March, the focus of the campaign turned to Trenary’s customers. He and Turec have come up with a new marketing approach focused on “real people, real prices.” 

“We interviewed customers that were happy with us,” said Trenary. “We just want them to go on television and tell the truth. Did you get treated fairly? Get good service? We have three people in each segment, and then the general manager and I come on.”

Trenary and Turec take the same approach in their newspaper ads. “We try to put integrity back into the business,” said Trenary. Once again, the underlying theme remains essentially the same: Trenary’s dealerships are staffed by regular people offering regular consumers a fair deal. The subtext: Come on in and leave your anxieties at home.

“Our feeling is that, normally, people are pretty intimidated walking into the dealerships,” said Trenary. “It’s like walking into the dentist’s office. This is about making the experience more pleasant. If people will believe us, they’re a lot more likely to say, ‘Let’s give these guys a shot.’”

Inside Customers’ Minds
You just have to understand what car buyers are thinking if you want to sell to them, said Turec. “When you buy a home for $300,000, you tell people you bought a $350,000 home,” said the advertising chief. “You tend to lie up on certain things.” But for a car that cost $25,000, the price gets cut to $23,000. “You like to lie down when it comes to cars.”

Consumers just don’t trust dealerships about any price they put on a car. So from Turec’s perspective, the best ad that Trenary can run is one that builds authentic trust. “I have a dealer that is a very gregarious and friendly personality and genuinely a nice guy,” said Turec. “He has a general manager that has been with him since his beginning. The best thing I can do is bring this personality out, so you feel like you’re dealing with a friend rather than an adversary.”

But it has to be real. Phony material doesn’t sell cars. “I’ve had many, many competitors try to copy us,” said Turec about the blooper strategy, “and they’re so obviously staged.” Now people come up to tell Trenary how much they love his ads, all because of the funny twist at the end. That tells Turec they’re actually watching the whole spot to get to the punch line.

“Really, all they’re loving is four seconds of the commercial—and who loves a dealership’s advertising? It makes you feel safe about going there.” Or going back. Repeat business accounts for about 35 to 38 percent of sales at the three dealerships. In changing times, that’s a key to continued success.

A Market Turned Upside Down
“I’ve never seen things change like they did,” said the dealer. Last year his dealership was moving trucks, outselling cars by two to one. “That’s switched completely in the past six months. Smaller cars are hot right now. We’re selling all the Cobalts and Aveos and Malibus we can get our hands on. Of course, we’re still selling Tahoes and Suburbans. This is the good old U.S. of A, and there will always be people who drive them.”

But the market has changed dramatically and Trenary and Chevy are changing as well. “We’re pushing units that get better than 30 miles per gallon; that’s what people are conscious of,” said the dealer. “Every morning on the Today show, you’d see how these gas prices were going up. They’ve made everybody so conscious of fuel economy.

“There are very few people that don’t want to talk about what kind of mileage they get. I had a good customer who stopped me and said, ‘I took my Tahoe with flex fuel option on it. It’s an 8-cylinder that kicks over to a 6 for fuel economy on the highway. If I drove 65 to 68, I’d get 28 miles to the gallon.’

“People are so much better educated now,” he added. “When I got in the business 45 years ago, there was no Internet. Now, anyone can go online and find out the cost of our inventory. Anything else, a suit or a refrigerator and so on, you can only get a sale price. But everything we do is right there online and a dealer still has to survive. You have to make a profit to exist. It is a tough, tough time.”

The manufacturer’s new pricing has just made it even tougher by cutting into the dealer’s markup. “It also makes it tough for auto salesmen to make a living,” said Trenary. “If we sell a small car – and that’s for any manufacturer – sometimes there’s not $300 profit in a new car. But times are tough everywhere. Look at Realtors and homebuilders and furniture stores; it’s a chain reaction.”

So, you work harder to take care of the people buying from you. That means making sure that his service department always sets aside time to help anyone driving up to a store. Said Trenary: “No one is told no.”

This January, Trenary gets a chance to employ his decades of experience as the incoming chairman of the Missouri Automobile Dealers Association, and he believes that groups like the MADA can fill a void.

“Right now, manufacturers have pretty well cut down on dealers meeting with other dealers,” said Trenary. “Maybe they don’t want us to discuss the problems,” he said with a chuckle. “Or maybe they don’t want to drag us down. Can you really not afford to go to a meeting and learn how to make money, learn from other successes? I’m going to try and get participation back where it was, tell people it’s time to bite the bullet and send somebody to the convention next June.”

Even when he’s at his most serious, though, Trenary is always ready to find something to laugh about.

“My hair is a pretty gray now,” said the dealer. “If I didn’t have a sense of humor, I have no idea what color it would be. I’ve washed cars, done it all in the business. I look at the guys on the floor and I feel an obligation to bring people in to buy cars. My philosophy is to take care of people. They’ll tell their friends, and that’s the best advertisement you can get.”

Vol 5, Issue 10

About the author
John Carroll

John Carroll

Contributing Author

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