Dealer campaign drives different route

Car dealers are scum. Actually no, that's not true at all. Scum is far more evolved, morally and intellectually. Car dealers are what scum wipes off the soles of its shoes. In their wildest fantasies, they aspire to be scum. They...

Car dealers are scum. Actually no, that’s not true at all. Scum is far more evolved, morally and intellectually. Car dealers are what scum wipes off the soles of its shoes. In their wildest fantasies, they aspire to be scum. They are scum wannabes.

That’s pretty much the reputation that automotive retailers have shouldered for years. They’re not the worst-regarded professional group out there – crack dealers, hired thugs and bank executives all probably rank lower in the public estimation – but they rarely get a sympathetic portrayal in the media. And what’s really odd is how little they seem to fight it.

Given the industry’s long-standing image problems, you’d expect to see many dealer associations mounting campaigns designed to make consumers view them in a more favourable light. Such initiatives, however, have been few and far between. Open the automotive section of your weekend paper, and you’ll find the same kind of ads that were there a decade ago, jammed wall-to-wall with products, prices and lease rates.

Little wonder, then, that the current campaign for the Ontario Toyota Dealers has garnered attention. Created by Toronto-based Gee, Jeffery & Partners Advertising, the ads employ devices rarely used in the category – radical stuff like wit and subtlety – to communicate a simple message: We’re great guys. Come to us and we’ll treat you well.

‘You tend to see a lot of loud, obnoxious ads [in this category] that don’t really communicate the benefit of dealing with the organization that’s selling the car,’ says Brett Channer, vice-president, creative director with Gee, Jeffery. ‘We’re trying to find a voice for the organization, and capture it in a way that helps them break away from the pack.’

‘We were looking for something that would separate us from all the clutter out there,’ affirms Mark Bozian, president of the Ontario Toyota Dealers. ‘We need to brand ourselves.’

This isn’t actually the first such undertaking by the Toyota dealers organization. They had, in fact, attempted something vaguely similar a decade ago: the ‘What a feeling!’ campaign, which employed the memorable image of red-jacketed Toyota dealers jumping for joy – presumably at the prospect of helping car buyers acquire such wonderful vehicles.

In its goofy but charming way, that campaign lent Toyota dealers a certain identity. And it’s clear, 10 years after the fact, that the organization now needs that identity more than ever.

‘Any dealer worth his salt will admit that vehicles are a commodity now,’ Bozian says. ‘So the only difference between us and [our competitors] is what we do for the customer. If Toyota wants to achieve additional share, then people have got to understand that Toyota dealers are real people.’

Channer agrees. With greater parity between automotive brands, the consumer’s purchase decision is no longer simply a function of the best price for the best car.

‘What it’s becoming is a relationship between shared values,’ he says. ‘What we’re doing, by putting the dealer group out there as a brand, is exposing them as human beings and showing their values. Those values are things that people can relate to and share in – and that’s what creates a relationship.’

This sort of branding approach is a smart strategic move for a dealer organization to be making right now, argues Richard Cooper, an analyst with Toronto-based J.D. Power and Associates.

‘They [the Toyota dealers] are trying to differentiate themselves in a market that has become very price-driven,’ he says. ‘For a lot of dealers, the primary objective is to get as many vehicles on the road as possible. That has got the industry into some trouble with the customer – people just don’t trust the dealers anymore.’

Launched in January, the Ontario Toyota Dealers campaign incorporates cinema, television and print advertising. The theme line is ‘Real people selling great cars.’

The most attention-grabbing element of the campaign is, by far, the 90-second cinema spot, created by copywriters Channer and Trevor Schoenfeld, and art director Craig Brownrigg.

The spot opens with a weaselish young commercial director (‘Rolo Tarry’) pontificating into the camera. As we cut back and forth between his attempts to articulate the vision for his ‘film’ (‘I care about…almost translating the reality of the product. Not really the reality, actually’), and behind-the-scenes clips of the artiste guiding his actors (‘When the audience looks right into your eyes, they have to see you have the passion of a dancer’), we arrive very quickly at the conclusion that this budding Orson Welles is a Grade-A wanker. He throws hissy fits, responds suspiciously to small talk, and finally ejects one amiable older guy from the cast for having the temerity to ask a question.

The conclusion of the spot reveals that the production is, in fact, an Ontario Toyota Dealers spot, and the scene ‘Rolo’ has been working so hard to choreograph is the trademark ‘jump.’

The cinema spot, Channer says, certainly answers the client’s demand for something breakthrough and different. (No other Canadian dealer organization has, in recent memory, used cinema advertising.) It also does an effective job of communicating the ‘Real people selling great cars’ positioning, by contrasting the odious young director with the likable, unpretentious Toyota folks. And it establishes continuity with the dealer association’s well-remembered campaign of a decade ago, by reviving the familiar ‘jump.’

All that said, the dealers did not embark on this venture without a certain amount of trepidation. ‘It took very large balls for the guys on the board to approve that cinema spot,’ says Bozian. ‘It cost a considerable amount of money – and there isn’t a retail offer anywhere in the spot.’

A truncated version of the cinema ad has been airing on television, along with two more traditional spots that focus on the buyer’s experience on the dealership floor.

Gee, Jeffery has also developed in-store materials, and a series of newspaper ads that – once again – take an unconventional approach for the category.

While the ads do include some product and lease-rate information, most of the text is devoted to underlining those qualities – professionalism, trustworthiness, approachability – that set Toyota dealers apart from the crowd.

The first ad in the series, for example, addresses openly the ‘sordid salesman’ image that dogs automotive dealers, and counts the ways in which the Toyota folk differ from that stereotype, citing service offerings such as their 24-hour roadside assistance program and their special incentives for students.

‘Here’s the thing,’ it ventures, in an effort to sum up part of the organizational philosophy. ‘We learned long ago to listen more and talk less. It saves on breath mints, and you actually help people by shutting up.’

Most print ads for auto dealers are virtually indistinguishable from one another, Channer says. ‘It’s predictable – there’s nothing new or refreshing about it. When the consumer’s at the stage of actually looking through the newspaper and comparing prices, you should be trying to excite them. And if everybody’s doing basically the same ad, you’re not exciting anybody.’

While the campaign is still in its early stages, both client and agency are heartened by the public feedback they’ve received so far. Indeed, Bozian considers it just a matter of time before other dealer organizations undertake similar branding efforts.

‘And you know what? I would welcome that. Because when the industry advertises, we all benefit. Competition keeps the car business strong. If the GM dealers run a $12-million campaign, that can help me too, because it draws consumers into the marketplace.’

Richard Cooper, for his part, also expects to see competitors follow the Toyota dealers’ lead.

‘The progressive ones, anyway, will realize that they have to address this issue of lack of trust,’ Cooper says. ‘I think other dealers will recognize the need for differentiation – the need to distance themselves from the pack and not just talk about the lowest price or monthly rate.’

Of course, all the talk in the world about trust and commitment to service won’t amount to much if dealers can’t actually back it up on the showroom floor. ‘They have to deliver at the moment of truth,’ Cooper says. ‘If they don’t, then everything will fall apart.’

The future direction of the Ontario Toyota Dealers campaign ultimately remains to be determined – but Bozian says the organization is definitely committed to it for the long term.

‘Once you start to go down this path,’ he says, ‘it’s a very difficult approach to just walk away from.’

Also in this report:

- Catch them young and keep them forever: Image-conscious young people are a challenging target for automakers – but when companies win the loyalty of first-time buyers, they earn long-term dividends p.35

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