Competitive Edge — Keeping it Requires More than Producing a Clean Car
Remember when washing cars was mainly about washing cars? What I mean is that if you delivered a good consistent service at a fair price you could go about your day reasonably certain that competitors would keep a fair distance. If you kept the facility clean and maintained and staff courteous, you could anticipate your business would grow and capture an increasing percentage of customers passing by. Advertise some coupons, and you’d expect to get a spike in volume. In the good old days, putting out a clean car and treating customers well was enough. Today’s technology however is raising that bar fast.
I’m not referring to car wash technology, but the technology that helps us promote our businesses. As these services shift online, the price of everything is plummeting. Watch any cable news network and you’ll be bombarded with ads for free websites, cheap business printing, and discount mass-e-mail services, just to name a few. Leveraging sophisticated software to deliver mainly self-serve access to powerful tools, nearly anyone can execute an impressive marketing plan for a ridiculously low price. Are you on top of the technology that can keep the most profitable customers in your market engaged with your business?
Imagine you’re spending thousands each month on direct mail coupons. Now imagine that a competitor has determined that there is a large and active group of runners in your market. They target an online banner coupon that appears on a leading runner news website only for people in a particular set of zip codes and spend one dollar each time someone clicks. They sponsor a 5-K run. They design 500 business cards online for $20 that congratulate the runners and offer a promotion to like them on a social media site. Handed out at the event, that other car wash has possibly taken some of your customers, has a way to send future offers to them for free, and has shown that they cater to their interests. Fast-forward another five years. As technology becomes more sophisticated, if you’re not on top of it, your competitive disadvantage will grow. Someday, ignoring your marketing plan may be as big an invitation to competitors to enter your market as putting out a poor product. Luckily, the concepts to market your wash effectively are a whole lot simpler than actually washing cars. Let’s take a look.
YOUR MARKETING PLAN
I’ll admit, whenever I start thinking about marketing, my brain immediately turns to doing more. More e-mail, more social networking, more direct mail, more of anything to get people to come to my wash. Fortunately I’ve been doing this long enough to stop and think first. Marketing is the process of communicating the value of your wash to current and prospective customers. Whether you use e-mail, the newspaper, a social media site, signage, or start randomly dialing people from the phonebook as a tool to communicate that value, you need to define what it is first. Clean, dry, shiny, fast, cheap, and consistent are great, but there has to be more to it. If that’s all you are, a new wash can open with a newer and larger tunnel to offer cleaner, drier, shinier, faster, and cheaper. Basically, you have to prepare a compelling answer to the question, “Why should a customer choose your wash?”
Fortunately, you don’t have to come up with an answer to that question for every potential customer in your market, nor should you. What you need to do is look at your market and pick groups of people that you believe can contribute the most to your bottom line over the next 12 months. If you read a book on marketing, it can make the whole process of segmenting your market and picking a target seem pretty complicated. It’s not. Picking a target in no way means that it’s the only group of people you’re selling to. Think of the Apple iPod. Their advertising is “targeted” to young, hip, 20-somethings. I am way outside that target, but still use both an iPhone and iPad. Selecting a target market means that you’ll be something to someone.
Targets are usually geographic, demographic, psychographic, and behavioral. For geographic, don’t immediately limit yourself to a set radius around your property. You may have a large office complex nearby. Provided a significant portion of those workers likely live near your wash, you may add that zip code into your online pay-per-click territory. Demographics refer to age, gender, income, etc. If you’ve ever been to Lowes Home Improvement, with its blue graphics and bright isles, they intentionally target female shoppers. Home Depot, with its orange graphics and warehouse isles, targets male shoppers. This of course is overgeneralized but the point is you have to pick a target, and design the look and feel of your wash to appeal to it. When I think about psychographics, I’ll try to decide if I’ll wash more cars by focusing on couch potatoes, outdoor enthusiasts, or some other group. If it’s couch potatoes, I might test some cable TV ads. If it’s outdoor enthusiasts, I might do something like I wrote about in the beginning. Behavioral just refers to activities your target market enjoys. I targeted outdoor enthusiasts that like to run in my first example, but I could have just as likely targeted couch potatoes that like to bowl. Once you pick your target market, try to make your wash so meaningful to them that they will recommend you to friends and family.
YOUR COMMUNICATION PROGRAM
Pick the most cost effective media your target market uses most heavily and focus on it. Direct mail, radio, newspaper, pay-per-click, websites, e-mail, social networks, billboards, and any other advertising can get your message to potential customers, but what message will drive the most traffic? It depends on your selected target market. Couponing, discount-days, fundraising, and other tactics all have their place, but the guiding principle to never forget is that effective advertising works the first time. Make sure you track what works and cancel what doesn’t. Once you have your core communication plan tested, schedule all activities for at least 12 months.
YOUR LOYALTY PROGRAM
Two things keep customers coming back. First is the value of the experience you provide, or your brand. Second is the value of the wash you provide, basically how clean and at what price. Most owners focus on the second. Points-based loyalty programs, punch cards, wash books, and VIP clubs are all very straightforward. As customers increase how frequently they wash, their price goes down, increasing the value they get. When creating your loyalty program, however, don’t forget to spend as much time thinking about the experience you provide as you do the dollar value of the wash. Everything from your site and staff appearance to how you apply detergents in the tunnel plays a valuable role in retaining customers.
The tools to effectively market your car wash are getting cheaper, easier to use, and require no specialized knowledge other than common sense to master. Attend trade shows and get with other operators to learn what is, and what isn’t working. It takes effort and significant time, but as with most things, the harder you work at it, the luckier you’ll get.
Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as president of SONNY’S The CarWash Factory, creator of the Original Xtreme-Xpress Mini-Tunnel, and the largest manufacturer of conveyorized car wash equipment, parts, and supplies in the world. He can be reached at Aanaletto@SonnysDirect.com or
at (800) 327-8723 ext 104.