Is ‘Reactionary’ Marketing Too Little, Too Late? Maybe Not.

Is ‘Reactionary’ Marketing Too Little, Too Late? Maybe Not.

A body shop owner came up to me at a California Autobody Association meeting recently and shared his tale of woe. A Multi-Shop Operator (MSO) had opened a location in his hometown, where he had been doing business since the 1970s.

The presence of the MSO caused him concern, especially when he lost a DRP to his new neighbor and several of his top techs as well. His first instinct, he said, was to step up his marketing, social media and advertising efforts. When he then told me that he had borrowed $50,000 for marketing and wanted my opinion on where the money should be spent, I was a little flabbergasted.

My first question for him was, “Why did you wait so long?” It surely wasn’t what he wanted to hear at the time and he certainly didn’t like what I told him next. “It might be a little too late.”

I always tell people that marketing is a churn—an ongoing endeavor. You need to do several forms of marketing all the time to some degree. I ask body shops how many hours are you or your staff willing to dedicate to marketing, which includes social media, public relations, advertising and the Internet? I explain to them that marketing is not something you do when your car count drops or when you have a couple slow months in a row.

The biggest mistake body shops make with marketing is having unrealistic expectations. I have heard these statements from body shop owners more than once. “We did some cable advertising, but it didn’t work.” (It turns out he tried it for one month and when the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook, he got out of his contract.) “We didn’t get any new customers from our radio advertising.” But when I asked him how did you track the results (or lack of them) he didn’t have an answer.

But, fear not. If you’re in a tight situation and want to fast track your marketing, you can still save the day if you work smart and jump in with both feet immediately. It’s not the best way to do it because the majority of any marketing won’t probably show any significant positive returns until you’ve been plugging away for six months to a year. When you embark on a marketing plan, it’s like planting a little seedling. It’s going to take some time before it will grow roots and eventually produce fruit.

Here is a scenario where a body shop owner moved quickly and did all the right things to save his 23-year-old shop from folding when an MSO came to town. Allen Sutfin, 54, the owner of Golden Valley Auto Body, was surprised when a shop with a name similar to his moved into his hometown of Yuba City, CA. Only a couple miles apart, the two shops were immediately being confused with each other. (The name of the MSO is being withheld).

Suftin quickly realized he had a problem on his hands. “People started coming in here asking me When did you open the new shop?” Suftin said. “I told them it’s not my shop! Right then and there I knew I was in trouble, especially when I learned that some of my customers mistakenly brought their cars to be fixed there, thinking it was my shop.”

Suftin has built a strong foundation and a large customer base in Yuba City, where he was born, so when he saw what was happening to his business, he didn’t get mad—he got even. “I came to the conclusion that my main advantage over this new shop was my longevity in town,” Suftin said. “We’re a locally-owned and operated business and we’ve been here since 1990. We have second-generation customers coming here. Hey, competition is always going to be present and it can get pretty intense in this industry. But in this case, I was losing cars not for my reputation, but because of a mistaken identity. We lost a few jobs right off the bat and that’s when I asked myself, what can I do?”

Rather than taking the time to carefully contemplate his next move, Suftin acted definitively and started making things happen literally overnight. “I started doing larger ads in our local newspaper, the Yuba City Appeal Democrat,” he said. “We only have one newspaper here, so I wanted to be in there as often as I could. We’ve been picked as the best body shop in town for the past three years by this publication, so we starting leveraging that. In all of our ads, we began incorporating the phrase ‘locally owned and operated’ and started emphasizing our location, to avoid further confusion.”

Ramping up his community outreach also became a priority, Suftin explained. “We’ve always been involved in our chamber of commerce and have hosted charity fundraisers here at the shop over the years. But now, these efforts took on a whole new importance. Charity events are a win-win, because we’re helping those in need and getting a lot of free publicity in the process, from the Appeal Democrat and the local radio stations here in Yuba City.”

To complement all his other marketing efforts, Suftin devised a broadcast plan that involved both local radio and cable TV advertising. “We got on the air and made a statement,” he said.

“It was our way of telling the community that we’re not retreating and things are still the same. We kept stressing we’re Golden Valley Auto Body and you know us—we’ve been here for more than two decades and there’s a good chance that you or someone you know has had their car repaired here.”

By pushing his exemplary track record and the quality of his work, coupled with an avalanche of marketing, Golden Valley Auto Body was able to stay busy, while most of the name confusion was alleviated. Suftin is looking at a profitable 2013 and his role in the business community is stronger than ever. What advice can he offer to other body shops all over the country whose business is threatened for one reason or another?

“Fight it, any way you can,” Suftin said. “Marketing was the key for us, because it was our way of telling our story and clarifying who we are. Now the message is out there, and the advertising we’re doing today is simply supporting that. Any company is going to run into competition and adversity, but by using your resources and not panicking, you can survive and keep your good name intact.”

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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