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Bargain Clutter Busters

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Boston was invaded in July 2003. Not by aliens or a foreign army, but by strange creatures known as “treadheads.” During that month, six young men cruised the streets of Boston sporting an unusual hair style – a tread pattern on their heads. They also wore red T-shirts bearing the question, “What’s up with my head?”

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It was all part of a strategy masterminded by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. to promote its Dunlop tire brand. As part of the unusual marketing campaign, Goodyear paid these treadheads $30 an hour to shave their hair in the shape of tire tread and travel around town like walking billboards.

According to Street Attack, the Boston-based marketing firm that ran the promotion, the “edgy” marketing concept had one overarching goal – to cut through the clutter. By “clutter,” it meant the plethora of ads, TV commercials and radio ads that, after a while, people tend to tune out.

Think that’s a weird promotion? How about this: On Apr. 15, the Daytona Cubs baseball team in Daytona Beach, Fla., announced a 2004 Funeral Promotion in partnership with a local funeral home.

The gist of the promotion: Willing participants were asked to submit to the Daytona Cubs front office a two-page, typed essay describing their ideal funeral. The winner, announced during one of the games, received a certificate for a casket, funeral service and viewing with a traditional service or cremation. The certificate is “good for life” and was, of course, non-transferable.

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This promotion got national media attention because it was so wacky.

Not your style? Way too costly? Don’t worry – you don’t have to go to extremes to market your products and services in a clever way and “cut through the clutter,” so to speak. And, you don’t have to have deep pockets either to bring customers into your shop. In fact, marketing your business effectively doesn’t have to be complicated, controversial or costly. Here are four clever marketing concepts you can do today with relatively minimal financial investment.

1. Grassroots Marketing
In its simplest terms, grassroots marketing means engaging in activities that ground your company in the local community. Such activities can include getting involved with local car clubs, schools or surrounding businesses.

“Public schools, in general, are in dire need of funding, so it could mean sponsoring a sports team or the school band,” says Ron Sinclair, vice president of marketing for American Tire Distributors.

You could also attend Chamber of Commerce meetings or participate in a local civic group. By doing so, you gain valuable networking opportunities and visibility in the community.

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Jason Shannon, vice president of sales administration at American Tire Distributors, offers another idea: “If there is a university in your marketing area, offer a back-to-school special and put postcards in the college post office boxes. It’s a simple thing to do, and most colleges don’t charge for that. And, it creates loyalty among a group of people who may not be part of the community and so may not know where to go when they get a flat tire or new car service.”

Another advantage of the university idea – an instant, centralized and captive customer base. Well, at least until graduation.

Within the grassroots marketing category is another innovative concept known as institutional marketing. John Marshall, vice president in charge of retail stores for Grismer Tire Co. in Dayton, Ohio, used this method to get community notoriety, good advertising ideas and even additional sales.

How did he do it? His tire dealership promoted an ad contest to eight high schools in Dayton and surrounding communities. Students were asked to design ads promoting the dealership, and people from the community were invited to visit the tire shop to vote on their favorite.

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The top eight ads (one from each school) were published in the local newspaper, which had partnered with Grismer Tire on the campaign. The eight winning students each received a savings bond from the tire dealership. One overall winner was selected, and Mario Andretti himself presented that student with a bond during a special ceremony that took place in the student’s school auditorium.

True, the bonds and Andretti’s appearance did cost Marshall some money, but you don’t necessarily have to go that far to be successful. Perhaps just a free set of tires or a gift certificate would be enough of a prize. The point is creating interest through innovative means.

Obviously, the ad contest brought traffic into Grismer Tire. But it did more than that. “We were able to break through the clutter with something different,” said Marshall. “Parents were involved, the schools were very enthusiastic about the program and teachers were able to see the fruits of their efforts.”

Another side benefit of the contest – Marshall had access to a stockpile of new, creative, eye-catching ads promoting his dealership.

2. Cross Marketing
Granted, institutional marketing might be too ambitious for a small, single-location tire dealership. In that case, there’s another, smaller-scale alternative – cross marketing. Any independent tire dealer can offer to display some literature at the car wash down the street, for example, and let the owner of the car wash post his material at the tire shop.

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Maybe your cross-marketing partner is not a local car wash but a detail shop specializing in high-end cars. Maybe it’s a car audio shop. Maybe you don’t post flyers but just agree to exchange referrals. The truth is, it doesn’t much matter what kind of business you swap customers with or how you do it, as long as – one, it is not a competitor of yours, and two, the relationship makes sense in terms of your overall marketing objective. For example, if you’re trying to attract a young crowd to your dealership, you might try posting flyers at a local arcade or movie theater and letting the managers there do the same at your shop.

“Offer a special promotion,” Sinclair recommends. “The only cost involved is the printing of the flyer. Also consider offering discount or loyalty cards to local businesses,” he suggests. “If you are only two miles from a Lowe’s, for example, it might make sense to issue 5% discount coupons to Lowe’s employees to bring them into your shop.”

3. Viral Marketing
Yet another concept can help create buzz for your business without breaking the bank. It’s called viral marketing. Despite its name, it’s not harmful, and you don’t need a vaccine for it. It’s just consultant-speak for “word-of-mouth” marketing. Your marketing message should travel like a virus, creating the potential for exponential growth in the message’s influence. Oftentimes, this term is used to refer to Internet or e-mail marketing, but the strategy can be used in the real world, too.

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How do you do viral marketing? According to most experts, the key to an effective viral campaign is a give-away. Give away something. For free. “Free” is a powerful word. Even if all you’re giving away is free information about tire care, getting something for nothing is a draw. Perhaps offer free tire pressure checks or hold a car-care clinic. Conduct a free class on how to change a tire. You can simply post flyers or take out a small ad in the local newspaper to get the word out. The point is to get people into your shop.

One you draw them in, they might see those wheels they’ve always wanted or remember that they haven’t replaced their tires recently. And, they will presumably tell others about the freebie. The result – your message travels like a virus.

4. Be an Expert
Another inexpensive marketing idea is to position yourself as a local expert. Call the local newspaper and offer to write a regular column on tire tips or car care. True, it’s up to the editors whether or not it gets published, but if they decide to print your articles, you’ve got instant, free publicity.

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Shannon knows several American Tire Distributors dealers who host one-hour radio shows about car care and answer call-in questions from listeners on the air. “It’s not for everybody,” Shannon says. “But the point is to position yourself as an expert and communicate that to the community.”

One easy way to do this is to take advantage of National Tire and Safety Week (NTSW) sponsored every year by the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA). In 2005, NTSW is scheduled for Apr. 24-30. It’s a ready-made opportunity to show that you care about your community by promoting proper tire care and safety. And it costs little more than some of your time.

Remember, however, that your goal should be to develop relationships, not give sales pitches. So, try to keep it informative and non-commercial.

Use Your Advantage
No matter what method you choose to get your message out, always remember: Independent, local dealers have at least one major advantage over big retailers. In Sinclair’s words: “They have that consistency and understanding of their local community.”

Small dealerships may not have the big marketing budgets of the chain stores, but they have knowledge and expertise and are tightly woven into the fabric of the community. “This positions them ahead of their larger competitors on the path of building a relationship with the consumer,” says Sinclair.

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And that’s what marketing is really all about – developing relationships with customers. Sinclair and Shannon both strongly advise independent dealers to build a rapport with customers.

“Humanizing the dealer makes a difference,” says Shannon. “If you have kids who play soccer, get involved with the team. Sponsor a fireman appreciation day or offer free oil changes for police officers. Use this community advantage to its fullest without being exploitative.”

Each of the techniques mentioned above is a clever way to stand out in a world of advertising clutter. But, there is a catch: You won’t get instant profits. The tactics outlined here are meant to boost long-term profitability, not provide quick results. “Don’t expect a short-term spike in sales,” Sinclair cautions tire dealers.

And, though financial investment may be minimal, these methods do require substantial time investment.

Done right, though, it will be time well spent. “The hope is that you will build long-term relationships and drive long-term business growth,” Sinclair says.

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