Advertise Authentic Experiences to Drive Shoppers to Your Dealership

Adopt strategies used by non-automotive brands that have shifted the focus onto the experience, rather than price or financing


Across the country, car dealers have often been the butt of jokes, groans, and face palms for their earworm radio jingles and cringeworthy TV ads.

Although these commercials might catch consumers’ attention, do they really make a difference in getting a customer to go to that dealership and purchase a car?

For more than 10 years, our company has conducted annual research in dozens of markets coast to coast to study consumer engagement with local market advertisements—including those of hundreds of dealerships—and whether those ads drive purchase.

These studies have evaluated more than 3,800 local ads, asking consumers to grade each advertisement on a range of measures including likeability, relevance, attention, brand opinion, purchase intent, and recommendation.

Through a combination of dial testing, follow-on focus groups, and comparison against a database of past ads analyzed, our research is able to measure ad receptivity levels among U.S. consumers.

We found that the best ads had three things in common. They were:

  • Emotionally connective
  • Consumer-centric
  • Authentic

A recent study included two automotive ads: one that focused on the price of the car and available pricing plans, while the other focused on a tailored car-buying experience, including an online shopping option.

The ad that focused on the customer experience saw a 79% net brand gain, by far the highest score among all advertisements, and double the price-focused advertisement, which had a 34% net brand gain.

Although price is the most important factor overall in the car-buying experience, it is not a reliable draw in getting customers to visit a dealership or make a purchase.

Our research shows that the industry’s history of selling on price has led to consumer disbelief, thinking the offer will not be available by the time they get to the dealership, or alternatively that it is “what suckers would pay.” Consumers think of a certain price or payment plan as being too good to be true, and are skeptical of how long these “deals” last.

Additionally, it’s important to strike the right balance when trying to come across as authentic. Another ad that was shown to consumers used comedy, via an actor talking about parenting, in order to build interest in purchasing a specific vehicle.

While many found the ad moderately entertaining, 62% of those surveyed said that the advertisement had no impact on their opinion of the brand or the model. This vehicle advertisement saw only a 26% net brand gain, by far the lowest of the ads studied.

Consumers felt alienated from the advertisement, and found nothing in the spot that would promote engagement or remove the distrust that consumers have toward the car-buying experience.

In order to remove the “dealer dread” that consumers feel, dealerships should turn the focus to the consumer. Rather than boasting about how many awards they’ve won or trucks they’ve sold, a dealership would see better results focusing on vehicle safety, quality of service, or a vehicle’s fuel mileage or its reputation, all of which were highly ranked in importance among consumers when it comes to car buying.

Dealers may feel that these elements are better suited to ads from the manufacturer, but we have seen local dealers enjoy significant gains when they’re able to connect authentic values with the dealership experience.

For example, dealerships that want to focus on safety can promote the fact that each of the cars on the lot have been individually tested and passed a rigorous safety inspection unique to that dealership.

This type of ad reminds consumers that dealers and their employees are members of the community, and understand that car buyers are looking for the safest possible vehicle for their family. Connecting with a customer on this level humanizes the dealership, and makes a customer more willing to visit.

Consumers want dealerships to engage them in conversations, not just overwhelm them with numbers. By shifting the focus from price and selection to alleviating the stress and fears associated with car buying, a dealership makes the process personal and conversational, rather than transactional.

Overall, dealers would be best suited to adopt the strategies used by other successful brands that have managed to shift the focus onto the experience, rather than price or financing. Think of the success Starbucks has had in convincing consumers to ignore price messaging and upgrade from gas station coffee.

In your dealership, it’s critical that you create a personalized and authentic experience that strives to achieve the same level of connection with your customers. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but focusing on the consumer experience on your lot is a good place to start.

You should be asking yourself a lot of questions about how what you do, what you say, and how you say it can impact consumer’s impression of your brand. For example:

  • How are customers greeted when they make first contact?
  • How does your CRM system drive quality interactions with prospects?
  • How can your floor team do a better job reducing dealer dread?

Focusing on the answers to these questions will help you build an authentic end-to-end experience, while effective marketing helps consumers feel more emotionally connected to your dealership. Our research shows that with that connection, they are more likely to purchase from you.

Humans are driven by emotion, and if a dealership can connect on that level and deliver on its promise, consumers will choose the friendly face rather than funny voices or fireworks.

For the past two decades, Bill Day has been working in and with automotive companies, helping to build and implement market-leading solutions. In projects from major metros to the smallest communities, he has listened to hundreds of local consumers talk about their frustration with the automotive-buying experience and car dealer marketing tactics. At Magid, Bill leads the revenue strategy practice focused on helping media companies, advertisers, and agencies drive improved marketing ROI.

Bill Day

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