On the Wash Front - February 2010

Marketing — Revisiting Your Plan
in a Changing Economy
By Anthony Analetto

Like most businesses scrambling to keep ahead in the current economy, the only rule that seems consistently true is that everything is changing. Your customers’ needs and the criteria for their choices are changing. Media companies are innovating ways to reach customers, and in some markets, the cost of traditional advertising is plummeting. When taken together, a savvy car wash operator is presented with an opportunity to increase market share.

In the words of Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Assuming you’re already delivering a clean, dry, shiny car with a reasonable amount of labor, “keep going” means dust off your marketing plan. It means aligning your competitive advantages with what your market desires, and advertising it to them. Here are a couple of ideas to get you started.


Imagine picking up a telephone, randomly dialing a number in your community, and offering some quick reasons to the person who answered why they should get their car washed at your business today. What would you say? If you were on the other end of the phone listening to your call, would you stop in for a car wash? Some customers may have recently lost their jobs. Others previously secure in their jobs, bonuses, or housing, may now be less certain. It’s unlikely that they are the same consumers they were when you first opened.

When analyzing why customers would choose your business, get in their shoes and evaluate the value proposition you deliver. Your entrepreneurial ability to match the quality and consistency of service, customer experience, and price with what your market desires is the foundation of any business. Dig deep, and don’t start with price. In fact, lately, more operators I know are adjusting their prices up slightly and changing their marketing and service offerings.


Having established the quick reasons why customers in your community would feel compelled to stop at your wash, it’s time to create your tagline. These are those simple messages that you’ll see and think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” In the car wash industry, I’ve seen some clever examples that shape how a customer will feel; that promise fast service, that guarantee quality; and combinations of all the above. Most importantly, you must consistently and prominently place the tagline on everything you have that the customer will see. Even if you simply list some of your features — such as “Clean, Dry, Shiny, Fast — Every Time” — on every sign, advertisement, coupon, menu, and business card, you’ll put yourself ahead of an equal competitor who doesn’t.


In the business section of this morning’s newspaper there was an article titled “Use of coupons increases sharply this year.” On my desk, a magazine greeted me with the headline “Why Coupons Work.” And each day the popularity of coupon promotions is shown by the flood of offers filling my mailbox. It’s not surprising that during an economic downturn consumers are rediscovering the value of shopping with coupons. What does surprise me is talking to a car wash operator who hasn’t at least looked into giving consumers a reason to try, and buy, their services with coupons.

You might be familiar with using local coupon packs and newspapers, but there are other options for distributing your coupons. Type “postcard marketing service” into any internet search engine and you’ll have offers from hundreds of firms that make sending your promotion as easy as clicking a button. Next, try searching for “e-mail marketing service” and you’ll find so many choices that they seem to be tripping over each other to offer you more features for a lower price.

If you do nothing else, you must do a search for “Google Local Business Center”. This absolutely free service takes only minutes to setup and does not even require that you have a website. What’s more, it has a feature where you can post online coupons for your business that customers can print and redeem at your wash. Imagine placing a coupon for your ongoing Wacky Wednesday right at the top of the page anytime someone in your community searches for a car wash. Even if you don’t use the Internet to find local businesses, many of your customers do, and it’s free, so just do it. The other search engines offer similar services and you owe it to yourself to take advantage of them.

Need help with creating coupon offers? Visit the International Car Wash Association at www.carwash.org and search “couponing.” You’ll find information on creating coupons, and while you’re there you can register online to attend the 2010 Car Care World Expo in Las Vegas.


Some operators live by billboards. Others have deemed them too expensive for the amount of traffic that they produce. Regardless, you may find that circumstances have changed and their usefulness to you has improved. Contact your billboard sales representative for an updated quote. Some areas are reporting savings of up to 60 percent compared to a year ago — without an extended contract. Savings are, of course, based on market conditions, but when the price makes sense, a well-designed, correctly positioned billboard can really drive traffic to your car wash.


I would rank having a bright, inviting, clean location with a highly visible street sign higher than most other marketing activities at a car wash. Recently I stumbled across the neatest thing. Ask your sign company about updating your lighted wall, monument, or pole sign graphics with new four-color print vinyl flex face. At a fraction of the cost of traditional plastic faces, it lets you update your sign more frequently so your message doesn’t get lost in the noise. I’m not sure how well they hold up over time, but I encourage anyone with a long history of using vinyl sign graphics to please shoot me an e-mail with their experience.


Radio and cable television can be highly effective, but are often costly and hard to track. Most success stories I have heard come from operators with multiple locations and a recognized brand in a specific market. Regardless, while preparing your marketing plan you definitely want to evaluate these media. As with billboards, prices in some markets have dropped recently, making broadcast media more accessible than ever before.


Whether it is holiday decorations, a person waving a sign out front, or agreements with other local businesses to promote each others’ services, effective marketing is about getting the right message in front of the right customer at the right time. It’s not about spending large amounts of money. One car wash owner I know increased his car count by 55 percent in one year with a lavish budget that included cable television, coupon mailers, and more. All of his advertising contributed to his success, but the one thing he felt was most successful was printing 30,000 Post-It® notes with a clever promotion that he adhered to cars in parking lots near his wash. If you’re willing to get creative, you’ll discover effective marketing doesn’t have to break the bank.


With all the hard work it takes to deliver a perfectly clean car and manage your staff, it’s sometimes hard to accept that it’s only one small part of the job. People in the industry have been talking for years that the days of “build it and they will come” were dying, and the current recession has made it official. Navigating this difficult economy demands creating a unique customer experience, communicating it effectively, and cultivating loyal customers based upon it. When the sun shines, there are cars to be washed. The reality, however, is that your marketing plan will be as important as your service offering, if the customer is to choose your business on that first sunny day.

Good luck and good washing.

Anthony Analetto has over 27 years experience in the car wash business and is the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory’s Equipment Division. Before coming to SONNY’S Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.

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