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Saturday, 01 December 2001 17:00

Marketing strategies for an economic downturn

Written by Tom Franklin

Economic indicators were already falling and a recession was looming when the catastrophe with the planes hitting New York's World Trade Center added to our economic pain. I'm already seeing a major slow-down in many shops in my area. "Business-as-usual" can be deadly at a time like this. What should a shop owner be doing to counteract the impact of these world events on his or her business profits?  

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It's been said "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." Only it isn't necessarily so. This time you may not get what you've always got. Advertising, marketing, and sales efforts you've made in the past may not be applicable in this unusual time.

Here are a few tactics you can use to turn this crisis into a marketing opportunity:

Advertising: Patriotism is running high at the moment. American flags are everywhere. Provide free printed flags, flag stickers to wear or put in car windows, or flag buttons with your shop name printed on them. Advertise the availability of the free novelty items at your shop to get people to come by.

Appearances: Consider re-painting a small, highly visible area of the front of your shop red, white and blue for a few months.

Associations, ethnic & religious affiliations: Take this opportunity to run an inexpensive patriotic ad in your chamber of commerce, church, service club or other affiliation newsletter.

Bus bench ads, posters, outdoor advertising: Get your patriotism and shop name in the minds of every prospective customer in your neighborhood. Create ads or posters with a large flag, a photo of your shop (and possibly yourself) and get it placed around in conspicuous spots where you get visibility you may never have had before.

Free diagnostic service: Mechanical shops have the advantage that they can invite prospects in for a free problem diagnosis. What can a body shop offer? Many people have small dings and scratches they never get around to fixing because they imagine the cost will be too great. When business is slow, advertise: "FREE! Quick Minor Body Repair Diagnosis." You'll get a lot of tire kickers, but when business is slow, every little bit helps. And those small customers may come back when they need a reliable, friendly shop to fix a major hit.

E-mail list: The number of subscribers to e-mail services mounts daily. Now is the time to collect an e-mail address from every customer and prospect. The difference in cost between sending out a flyer, brochure or even a postcard compared to sending an e-mail blitz (nearly free) is huge. It's remarkable so few shops use this incredibly cheap tactic to send e-mail thank-you notes, estimate follow-up notes, gift certificates for a free detail service and holiday greetings. Just remember - don't send "spam" ( junk e-mail). Sending spam is a quick way to ensure that future e-mail from you won't get opened.

Events: Host a community or industry event at your shop. Some shops let youth groups use their parking lot for a car wash fund-raiser. While people wait for their cars, you can offer an informative tour of the shop and hand out a "what to do after an accident" brochure to be kept in the glove.

Dear Readers:

I appreciate the calls and e-mails I get from so many of you about the marketing strategies discussed in my monthly column. I hope to meet you personally at NACE.

I'll be at the Orlean Hotel (just off the strip on Tropicana in LV). The seminar/workshops will be 2 1/2 hours in length, one at 10 am and one at 1:30 pm, Sunday, Dec. 2. The workshop costs only $65. You can combine the workshop with my new book & software package for a total of $99 (the book and software sell for $39.95).

The seminar, entitled "Customized marketing for your body shop," is an interactive workshop that will give you a solid action plan you can use immediately!


Exchanges, barter: Find an organization in your area providing relief to victims or developing an anti-terrorism program or fund-raising for some related activity. Offer time or money in exchange for an ad or recognition in all of their literature. Create a "Take-One" box to place on the front desk of various companies and organizations, in exchange for placing their "Take-One" boxes in your waiting area.

Phone image: Play patriotic music with your phone on-hold message. Add a line to your phone on-hold message expressing condolences to those who lost loved ones in the catastrophe and your support for the President.

Post-its & scratch pads: Years ago companies gave away matchbooks because many people smoked. Today, it's necessary to have a different kind of handout. One of the best is "Post-its," because they have "legs." When people write a note on a Post-it and pass it to a friend, if your company name is printed at the top, it will be noticed and may prompt a question or discussion of your services. And even if the Post-it with your name and phone number never leaves your customer's building, it's a constant reminder that you're only a call away when they need you. A "scratch pad" is a cheaper alternative to Post-its but not nearly as effective.

Project your image with novelty gifts: Have model cars made up with flags on the roof, doors or hood (and possibly your shop name also), and sell them or give them as gifts to key agents and insurance, fleet or commercial prospects. Offer them to customers as well. Baseball caps or T-shirts with your company name and a flag are a good alternative. Key rings are dull but still O.K. Today electronic clocks are so cheap, giving a clock with your company name on it is even affordable. A mouse pad is a more costly alternative, but a screen saver for "techies" is affordable.

Promotional campaign: Bring in more prospective autobody repair customers for a lower-cost service. Take the "Look good to represent America proudly!" theme to the point of offering a special detail and touch-up service and an American flag with every vehicle serviced.

Sponsorships & awards: Offer a small award for the best patriotic essay, poem, song or other creative work at a local school. For real publicity, offer an annual $1,000 scholarship to a high school senior who will be attending a community college to study automotive repair. You'll get mentioned in the high school graduation program and can probably arrange for a picture and short article in the local newspaper. Have the picture of you and the student taken in front of your shop.

Want to spend real money that makes a lasting impression? Provide team uniforms with your company name plus an American Flag patch on the arm for a team at a local school. Those kids have parents and they will notice the uniforms.

Web-site updates: Many shops that have a web-site rarely upgrade it. Stale sites don't get repeat visitors. Consider posting a "joke of the week" or "collision prevention tip of the week." A real winner is to upgrade your web site to show the progress you are making on vehicles being repaired. offers this service.

Word-of-mouth rewards: Offer a "Red-White-and-Blue Plate" dinner for two at a local family restaurant to every customer who refers someone to you. Arrange for that restaurant to display your business card or flyer.

Customizing tactics for your business

Marketing tactics are like clothing. One size does not fit all. One of my clients is almost full to capacity with jobs. To increase profits, he needs to focus marketing on higher end, more profitable jobs and customers - not just more customers. Another client isn't ready for a DRP yet. He needs to improve his image and build more local business so his shop looks busier and more prosperous when an insurance executive checks him out for possible DRP status. Each shop has special needs.

It can be very useful to have a menu of a dozen or forty marketing options, but most have to be tested to see if they would be profitable. This could require much trial and error and wasted investment money along the way. The ideas suggested above are unusually pertinent at this time and so can be used profitably by almost any shop, but this is a special time. For long-term growth, a gradual strategy integrating complementary strategies is necessary (see last month's article on "Integrated Marketing" or contact me for a reprint).

Good luck with your efforts to thrive during this difficult time. I'll look forward to seeing you during NACE.

Tom Franklin has been a sales and marketing representative and consultant for forty years and is the author of the book, "Business Battlefield Marketing for Body Shops" and other body shop marketing publications. His marketing company now provides integrated marketing solutions for body shops and other businesses. He can be reached for questions or comments at (323) 871-6862, by fax at (323) 465-2228, or by E-Mail:


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