Auto industry gets creative with crucial marketing strategies

For all the things that have changed and are evolving in the automobile industry, bottom-line success for South Florida car dealers still boils down to one necessity: Getting the customer through the door and into the showroom.

That’s where deals are ultimately made, where the look and feel and smell and touch of a new car can lead to the final intoxicating moment for both the business and the customer: a sale.

Car shoppers may arrive clutching a newspaper ad with a low-interest loan offer. A few may wave an email coupon they printed at home for “liking” a car dealer’s Facebook page or answering a Tweet, or even just for clicking on a dealer’s website. (In return, the dealer benefits by building an all-important email database of customers, creating a more personal and direct way to advertise.)

Gettin word out

“You have to motivate the consumer to come inside,” said Richard Baker, president of the South Florida Automobile Dealers Association. “You have to get the word out.”

That’s more of a challenge in South Florida than in other areas of the country, where people visit car dealerships as a form of Saturday entertainment, said Art Spinella, president of CNW Research, which conducts marketing research on the auto industry.

These days, car dealers must have a strong Internet presence, with a full-service website, pop-up ads and all the real-time, interactive bells and whistles that social media offer. Online information allows consumers to learn about the product, then compare cars and deals. Most dealers still rely on newspaper ads, TV and radio to reach the older generation and those who have done their research and are primed to buy a car.

“During the recession, we made marketing adjustments and tried to get away from newspaper, television and radio,” said 35-year industry veteran Warren Henry Zinn, president and CEO of Miami-based Warren Henry Auto Group, which includes nine franchises from Miami to Ocala. “It was helpful for us in our Infinity brand because we have a much younger buyer. But we still have people who come to the showroom with newspapers in their hand. You can’t abandon those people.”

Nationally, about 60-65 percent of visitors to car dealerships are motivated by a newspaper ad, Spinella said.

As the largest car retailer in the country, Fort Lauderdale-based AutoNation has the resources to capitalize on all forms of advertising and marketing. Senior Vice President Marc Cannon oversees a team of social media marketers who post videos, tweet and stream live footage from car shows and other events.

Bein proactive

“Eighty percent of our customers are going online before going into the dealership,” Cannon said. “Everybody is moving to a conversational way of marketing and advertising. It’s a proactive thing. It’s all building up to when the customer is ready.”

AutoNation, for example, ran a social media contest in November for three NFL footballs autographed by Dan Marino, a spokesman for AutoNation’s South Florida Maroone dealerships. The retailer’s blog asked: “What is your favorite tailgating activity?” with bonus entries for “liking” the blog post, “liking” AutoNation on Facebook and following AutoNation on Twitter. Three winners were chosen from 71 entries.

Rick Case Automotive Group, with six dealerships in South Florida including the new Rick Case Fiat in Davie and an expanded Hyundai dealership in Plantation, also relies heavily on online marketing. “People can go online and find out everything they want about a car, which is good,” Case said. “So you have to have a great website and you have to have a great database so you can get with your customers. Informed, intelligent consumers are good for the industry. And the dealer who treats the customer right gets the most business.”

Noted Cannon: “We have a more educated consumer and they do their research and dealers recognize that. If you do your homework online, you’ll get into a vehicle that’s perfect for you.”

Aut show

This time of year, many local dealers are moving into high gear to maintain the heightened interest in cars typically generated by the annual South Florida International Auto Show, which ran Oct. 28-Nov. 6 in the Miami Beach Convention Center. The South Florida show has a greater retail impact than auto shows in other parts of the country, industry experts say.

A 2009-2010 Foresight Research survey found that for a majority of those who attended the Miami Beach car show and purchased a car in the next 12 months, the influence of the auto show was greater than that of the Internet or word of mouth — or anything other than brand experience. For those who did not buy a car within the next year, the auto show proved less influential.

“Being able to see vehicles all in one place at one time is really important to a lot of people in areas like South Florida,” said Spinella, the marketing researcher. “They are open to looking at different makes and models from different manufacturers.”

Shoppin around

Vanessa Lopez, 29, herself a Miami marketing professional, fits that description. She visited the auto show to help pinpoint the next new car she plans to drive when the lease on her Volvo S40 expires in March. Her eyes stopped on the two-door Hyundai Genesis Coupe.

“It didn’t even look like a Hyundai; it has an edgier, more sporty look,” she said.

She also liked the BMW Mini Cooper and the Volkswagen Jetta, the car she drove at age 17. Like many auto show attendees, Lopez took cellphone photos of cars so she could recall and compare details, plus she posted her auto show experience on Facebook.

Switchin gears

Lopez is currently driving her third Volvo and, although she loves it, “I’m looking for something different. I want to be excited, definitely.”

She also wants a good deal — a zero-down, “sign and drive” option. Her next step is to test-drive the finalists at local dealers closest to her home in South Miami-Dade.

At the auto show, Ford and Lincoln exhibits offered $50 cash incentives to consumers willing to take a test drive at a local dealership. Ford also used “Hank the robot” to make the pitch to consumers like Coral Springs resident Mikki Jones, who attended the show with her 5-month-old baby, Sarah, and her husband, Ryan. Jones said the robot was “fun,” but it didn’t entice her to take any action. She did agree to give Ford her email for the $50 giveaway only because she already had planned to test-drive a Ford Explorer, which fits her $350-a-month car budget. The luxury car market requires a different ploy than a $50 offer, stressing the importance placed on targeted marketing, Spinella said.

“It makes perfectly good sense to offer $50 to someone who would buy a Ford, because they have all kinds of vehicles that are affordable, if you have a job,” he said.

Luxury car dealers instead throw grand events and parties for their customers, and co-brand their vehicles with other high-end products or properties, such as Fisher Island and Ocean Drive. Their marketing efforts are selling an entire lifestyle, that of South Florida’s glitterati.

 Courtin clients

For example, The Collection, which sells seven sports-car brands at its Coral Gables location, including Jaguar, Porsche, Ferrari and Audi, engaged Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade as a spokesman and trademarked its advertising tagline, “M.V.P. Treatment.”

“Once people become a client, they stay with us,” said Ken Gorin, president and CEO of The Collection, which maintains a customer database of 20,000, Gorin said. “It’s not about buying the next car, no pricing, no hurry on down. It’s branding. It’s about building relationships.”

To celebrate the birth of Fisker Miami, a division of the Warren Henry Auto Group, Zinn’s company and Fisker Automotive threw a “road party” at Sun Life Stadium last September before a Florida Marlins game. The invitees already had made a deposit on, or were interested in test-driving, the sleek, American-made electric sports car.

“We have 65 orders for the car already,” Zinn said, including 12 from people who test-drove the car at the Sun Life Stadium party (and were then invited to watch the Marlins game from the dealer’s luxury box).

Among the larger dealerships especially, another popular trend is offering a plethora of services and entertainment among the car displays, often at discount prices or even for free. Earlier this year, JM Lexus of Margate opened a nine-hole putting green and golf pro shop atop its three-story dealership. At the gigantic Lexus of North Miami, opened in 2009 by Craig Zinn, Warren Henry’s brother, customers can get a massage or facial, whiten their teeth or head to the juice bar.

Rick Case Honda and Miami Lakes Auto Mall offer a rewards card for customers. At Rick Case, customers get 100,000 points, worth about $100, for buying a car and can redeem those points for any purchase at the dealership. Card holders can get free, unlimited car washes and buy wholesale gasoline.

Needa haircut?

Any visitor can get a cheap haircut, eat a meal and even pay a traffic ticket or get married at the on-site clerk of courts office, which operates rent-free. “We try to do stuff that makes it convenient for our customers,” said Case, who attributes his quick recovery from the recession to such amenities.

In the end, car dealers focus the most special attention on existing customers because surveys show that experience with a brand has the most influence on a buyer.

To build loyalty, Rick Case doubles all manufacturers’ warranties. For decades, he also has directed his managers at his dealerships in South Florida, Atlanta and Ohio to give customers his business card listing his home, cell and business phone (Case said he typically receives three to four calls a week from customers as a result).

Warren Henry Zinn emphasizes the importance of his workforce to fuel his business. “We have to make sure we have happy and caring employees because if we don’t, we won’t have happy customers.”

Zinn’s customer database includes 65,000 car owners. “Word of mouth is critical and that is something you can’t put a price on.”


Source:  Miami Herald