What business are you in? I think that is your first marketing question. I believe you need to decide what you are doing. Are you a BHPH operation that will sell some vehicles for cash, or are you a retail store that will carry the note on some cars? I know they are both “the car business,” but the marketing for each business model is very different.

In retail used cars, we had success with price leader vehicles. We were advertising low payments and bargain cars, and everyone worked the phones to get prospects in. We used a Web site, AutoTrader.com, the local newspaper and Harmon’s. The media varied, but the ads were the same. There was little or no time spent on why a customer should come to the store other than the vehicle or price. That’s just advertising.
Several years ago, I helped open a new BHPH dealership that was part of a large franchise dealer group. This group spent large dollars marketing their mission of “customers for life,” and it worked. Every dealer associate lived the mission. The entire group utilized CSI scoring similar to an independent used car dealership and service department. The scores were tied to a hefty bonus for every employee. There was encouragement for individual employees as well as the stores to be involved in charitable programs. Marketing on television and in print ads targeted the great employees, their customers and the community programs they worked with. This dealer group sells the story of a great place to be involved with as an employee or a customer. Of course they ran competitive price ads and service specials, but the customers knew there was a difference.

I took the lessons learned from that group when I set up the operation I run today. Marketing is about the whole story. Who are we? What are we selling? Why shop with us? In our BHPH operation we advertise our program and our customer service. We market a program, which includes a comprehensive ESP, GAP coverage, free oil changes, credit reporting and assistance with sales tax.

The only time we advertise price and specific vehicles is when we get a trade-in with more miles than we’ll note but which is still a nice rig. We’ll put them on AutoTrader.com or craigslist. We are in a small town (population 25,000 with 50,000 people in the surrounding area). Local radio works well here. Our ads all start the same. We use the same music. I always start with “Hey everybody, this is Gene from BestRide!” Each commercial contains the same basic information about what we offer. This works like a jingle and people know the story just from a few words. I also do a live call-in radio show each week where we talk for an hour about car repairs, the industry and other topics. Each week, we give away $50 to a caller, who then has to come to the store to claim the money.

We participate in charity functions all around our area that will allow us to hang a banner or put our name on their t-shirt. Someone from the store attends these functions, always in a company shirt. We are involved in clubs like the Lions Club, where we participate in meetings and serve on boards. We are members of the Chamber of Commerce, not so much for their advertising assistance, but to be a part of the local functions. We have our own charity Hot Rod Show every year with live music, food and door prizes including a used-truck raffle.

We usually net out most of our expenses and give $3,000 to $4,000 to charity from a one-day event. Because it’s a charity event, the paper and a local magazine will run stories and pictures before and after. Each Halloween, we have a children’s costume contest with cash prizes and free candy. Everyone dresses up and we have a live radio remote broadcast. We take free pictures of all the kids. For that day we have carloads of people showing up to the store. We weren’t selling anything, just getting hundreds of people to the lot for fun.

Marketing is more than running ads. Marketing is about who you are and why you’re different. Look around your market to see what your competition is doing to market themselves. Use some of your advertising budget to market who you are and what makes your operation special.