Ryan Norris, co-owner of Toyota of Easley, knows the best way to boost sales: Stop talking about your store and talk about what the customer wants to know.
Norris grew up at the Upstate South Carolina Toyota store, which his dad, Tommy Norris, founded over 40 years ago. Ryan became co-owner in 2008, and although he was proud of the store’s heritage, he couldn’t help but wonder if its marketing strategy had kept up with the times.
“We were still heavily into TV, radio, and print,” he says. “We did some digital with Google search words, the same thing everyone else did. We were spending half a million dollars a year on television alone. That’s when I began looking more into the digital end.”
Norris wasn’t ready to make a huge leap from traditional advertising until he had researched digital opportunities and costs, then analyzed probable outcomes. By 2017, he had switched ad agencies and begun to seriously consider their suggestion to devote more resources to digital marketing.
“In April of last year, we quit television,” he says. “We’re having the best year we’ve had in the last 10 years. It’s hard to explain exactly how it affects everything. It does start with the culture.”
Toyota of Easley’s down-home, laid-back culture is on full display in the “Ask Ryan” videos housed on its website. And just in case customers wonder if what they see is a legitimate representation of the store and its owner, there’s a blooper reel that shows an even more human side of both.
Yet the videos aren’t the hard-driving sales pitches or calls to action some might expect. The “Ask Ryan” videos center on topics suggested by customers. They range from how leasing differs from buying to his view of the most essential core corporate values.
Michael Muldoon, longtime service manager at Toyota of Easley, says he noticed a shift in customer attitude once the videos began to air in 2017. As they proliferate, customers are increasingly friendly and open to service advisors’ suggestions.
“Our owners are much different than a lot of owners in this business. We have a true family atmosphere,” he says. “That gives customers a warmer feeling when they do business at Toyota of Easley.”
Investment Is Key
Muldoon wasn’t surprised when Norris opted to switch from traditional advertising to video. That’s just one of many examples of how Norris works on the day-to-day betterment of the business.
“Ryan has a ton of good ideas. When it comes to tweaking the dials, he’s always figuring out ways to be different and be better,” says Muldoon. “He’s highly involved in every aspect.”
And he knows and invests in all areas of the business, Muldoon adds, noting Norris started his career as a service advisor and wrote service at Toyota of Easley for seven years. “Ryan and Tommy Norris joke that the only people who spend more money than Mike Muldoon is their wives. We’re always trying to buy something new, to try a new process.”
Paul Potratz is the owner of Potratz Automotive Advertising Agency and was referred to Norris by Southeast Toyota. He says Norris’ willingness to look beyond traditional advertising is what sets him apart from other dealers.
“Any dealer can do it. But Ryan — he did it,” says Potratz. “He was definitely hesitant. But I kept pushing and pushing and pushing. Finally, he said, ‘I think you’re right.’ We were already starting to do creative stuff with TV, shooting in black and white, just trying to do something different than other dealers.”
Norris quickly adapted to the new format thanks in part, he says, to his musical chops. He plays acoustic guitar, and his family members also play instruments. Friends have likened them to “The Partridge Family.”
“Potratz keeps trying to get me on social media to play the guitar,” says Norris. “I said no. We have to keep the personal Ryan Norris and the business Ryan Norris separate.”
Of course, starring in your own videos can be a double-edged sword.
“He says that I absolutely ruined his life. And he’s right,” Potratz says. “We go out to dinner. It’s the same every time. His wife is ignored, his kids are ignored, I’m ignored. He said he’d never gotten so much recognition. He used to spend all kinds of money on TV ads. Nobody ever mentioned his TV commercials. He realized if you’re not always selling, you can create a brand.”
Norris takes his fame in stride, though he admits recognition occasionally catches him off-guard and makes it difficult to separate “personal Ryan” and “business Ryan.”
“It was weird at first. I used to be either in work mode or not in work mode. Now, a lot of times, just standing in the grocery line, someone will say, ‘Where do I know you from?’ You might think it sounds great, but sometimes it’s not at the most opportune times.”
Creating a Brand
One reason Norris took his time deciding whether or not to swap videos for TV commercials and a host of other traditional advertising spots was nervousness on his managers’ part. They worried such a move might cause the dealership to fail. But research convinced Norris the plan wouldn’t fail. And if it did, he had a backup plan.
“Most dealers today have a big problem with marketing. They spend way too much money, and they all look alike,” says Norris. “We do have one radio spot I plan on keeping. We’re right down the road from Clemson University, and we do a spot with the football coach, Dabo Swinney. As long as they’re winning national championships, that’s money well-spent.”
In researching video, Norris became convinced that no one watches TV anymore.
“They’re either streaming or they’re watching YouTube,” he says, noting that he also stopped Toyota of Easley’s three-to five-times-a-week newspaper advertising.
The videos have brought Norris more than exposure. The format allows Norris to talk about topics of interest to his customers, for them to see him as a member of the community. The only real mention of the dealership is in a tagline at the end of the commercials. That contrasts with the overt sales language found in most auto dealers’ advertisements.
“At first some people thought this wasn’t going to work. We didn’t have a call to action. We didn’t talk about Toyota of Easley,” says Norris. “We talked about culture and leadership.”
A dedicated email account for viewers showed that the community’s response was positive. And, for Norris, that community stretches from rural farms surrounding Easley all the way to Atlanta, about 140 miles away.
And the emails the dealership received showed that customers and community members wanted more videos of the same type.
“It was amazing what happened. If you and I didn’t know each other — if you were just going from dealership to dealership — it’s hard to know who to trust. But if we meet at a kids’ baseball game, we get to know each other. You might think, ‘Ryan seems like a trustworthy guy. I think I’ll deal with him.’”
The videos serve as a way to meet a broad group of customers, locally and nationally, and have even helped the store’s hiring and recruitment efforts.
“Now, is that going to sell us a car? Probably not. We did have one customer fly in from South Florida. But the impact is more here in the community.”
Norris says dealers needn’t have stage experience to do well in videos for their stores.
“If you own your own company, I think you have to brand your own company,” he says. “Most times, if you are a business owner or GM, you have no problem speaking in front of people,” he says. “Get on camera and do it yourself. And if you stink on camera, take another route.”
The reason, he says, is because customers love authentic conversations about cars. Offering those discussions separates a dealership from those that only talk price.
“People pay more to do business with a company that has real meaning, an identity, that shows how they create value,” he says, noting a lot of auto dealers ignore the idea. “Doing the videos doesn’t take a lot of hard work, but not how most of us are wired in the car business.”
Norris is glad he took the leap. In fact, the videos are so beneficial that Norris plans to begin an “Ask Ryan” podcast and perhaps interview customers.
“We have some interesting customers, including an ex-Green Beret, a doctor,” he says. “We can sit down and talk about life. We’re not even going to talk about the car business.”
Nancy Dunham is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist. Contact her at [email protected]