Will COVID-19 Change Your Marketing and Advertising Plans Forever?

Will COVID-19 Change Your Marketing and Advertising Plans Forever?

A friend of mine who owns a body shop always swore marketing and advertising were a waste of time and money, but now he’s singing the blues.

When things are going well and the cars are coming through the doors, many shop owners never even think about marketing and advertising---until now. If you’re currently doing half your normal volume and walking around in a haze, I could say “I told you so,” but that’s not how I roll.

With most shops reporting a 50% drop in business since mid-March, shops that never thought marketing was essential are sitting around scared and unprepared.

This is why I’ve always said marketing is not a “start and stop” thing. It should always be idling in the background and tailored based on car counts and the time of the year, but to do zero marketing is a mistake that is even more evident now.

We all know by now the COVID-19 global pandemic is going to change our lives forever, and the way body shops operate as well. It is already causing body shops to reevaluate their thinking about current and future advertising and marketing campaigns to accommodate social distancing and work-from-home protocols initiated to combat COVID-19.

How does the future look for body shops post-pandemic? Who will survive, thrive or meet their demise in a new world of market adjustments, stronger competition and an ever-increasing demand for marketing that will address and comfort consumers during these uncertain times?

Some shops have already redirected their marketing efforts, while others have just eliminated them altogether. They didn’t do it because they’re anti-marketing---they did it to survive as their car counts dropped and they were forced to furlough people.

“If it comes down to making my payroll versus maintaining our social media or email marketing, it’s a pretty easy decision,” one shop manager told me recently.

Shops that could afford to keep the marketing machine rolling along began tailoring their advertising to accommodate these indeterminate several months. With fewer people in their vehicles, some shops decided to nix things like radio advertising---both satellite and terrestrial---outdoor advertising---billboards, bus boards and other signage---and some mobile apps that target drivers in their cars.

Shops are now heavily pushing things like pickup/drop-off services, free car washes for customers and photo estimates, as well as safety protocols for customers and their employees.

One thing that has changed dramatically during stay-in-place orders is companies have realized letting their employees work at home is not a bad thing. In fact, many businesses have found out people working virtually are even more productive.

Some large high-tech companies such as Oracle, Facebook and Apple have asked their employees to work virtually with no immediate plans to change the plan. So, how do body shops get their marketing messages to those people who are in their homes 90% of the day?

Industry author, speaker and consultant John Stuef has held literally every position in a body shop. He entered the industry as a painter’s helper and then became a painter, a body man, manager and then owner. For many years, he owned several successful shops, and currently he’s a regional manager for a large MSO.

Two things Stuef has been doing since he bought his first shop involve getting out there in the public and hitting the streets for business.

“There will obviously be a lot less business out there until this thing is definitively over, which won’t truly happen until we have a vaccine that actually works,” he said. “Advertising isn’t going to get you what you need fast enough, plus it’s too expensive, especially when your marketing budget is temporarily limited.”

So, Stuef is suggesting a few things to do that might bring you some faster results.

The old adage is advertising is buying exposure while marketing is earning it.

“Tapping into proven sources of revenue is the best way to operate during these unprecedented times, especially when time and money are limited,” he said. “Whenever we wanted to create some new business, we went back to what always worked, like visiting dealerships and insurance offices.

"There is no silver bullet, but actually getting in front of people and interaction have always been effective for us. You can’t imagine the power of free pens and doughnuts.”

Stuef and many other shop owners, managers and marketing people are looking at how COVID-19 will affect consumer buying habits and the collision repair industry.

“It’s all about short term decision-making right now and those shops that will be able to pivot quickly will have a distinct advantage," Stuef said. "With so many uncertainties out there to deal with in both our professional and personal lives, a shop’s marketing should stress safety, comfort and trust more than ever.”

Angel Iraola at Net Business Consulting and Solutions in Oakland, CA, is currently performing marketing triage for a wide range of small businesses during the pandemic.

“With the economy taking a major hit, consumer behavior is likely to change dramatically through the end of the year and well into the first quarter of 2021,” he said. “For those with less disposable income, or considering retirement, this economic slump might result in a sharp decline to their spending habits.

"Right now, consumers are wisely taking a ‘wait and see’ approach, so body shops should consider their target audience and how their lives will change as a result of the current economic climate. It’s a whole new ballgame and only those who will adapt quickly will survive.”

Ed Attanasio

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

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