There are scores of books and university courses on brands and branding. There is even a publication named Brandweek that covers the latest in branding and branding programs.
But when most people think about “brand,” they envision a mega-company, like Coca-Cola or GM. Brands and branding, though, are equally important for small businesses, like tire dealers.
Some of North America’s best tire dealers winners and finalists in Tire Review’s Top Shop Awards know this well, and leverage their brands for maximum value and impact in their markets. And they shared their thoughts on branding with us for this story.
Helping with this article were Pam Gatto, Gatto’s Tires & Auto Service, Melbourne, Fla.; Jim Enger, Enger Auto Service & Tires, Cleveland, Ohio; Gary Michaels, Tires, Tires, Tires, Sioux Falls, S.D.; Howard Fleischmann, Community Tire & Auto Service, Phoenix, Ariz.; and Larry Griffin, Griffin Brothers Tire, Charlotte, N.C.
One definition of a brand is “the identity of a specific product, service or business.” That’s too simplistic, however, because a brand can take many forms, from a business name, a logo, signage, specific colors or a slogan, to any number of advertising, promotion and public relations programs. A brand really represents a company culture what amounts to the personality of your business.
Branding experts agree that if you build a powerful brand, you will have a powerful marketing program. Branding is complex. It involves the customer’s total experience with you, your product and your service. The best brands are emotional and appeal to a customer’s innate need for involvement.
We asked our participating Top Shop dealers, spread from coast-to-coast, several basic questions about their brand and their branding programs. Here is what they had to say.
What feeling does your brand impart to customers and prospective customers?
Griffin: Professional, quality, clean, progressive, trustworthy.
Fleischmann: Our initial intention of our brand was to say we are a part of every community that we serve. We are professionals.
Enger: Our customers have a special relationship with our associates. They are friends and neighbors. We built our business on integrity and respect. It is like stepping back in time, when you went to a local store and they knew everything about you. The brand is actually part of our culture to provide over-the-top customer service. You can buy advertising and slogans, but the customer will decide your true fate based not on what you say, but how you deliver the goods and services.
Michaels: We believe our brand imparts a feeling of confidence, quality and exceptional customer service. At Tires, Tires, Tires, we literally can say “Tires is our middle name.” Our business philosophy is to provide excellent service, using only quality parts to save customers money. Everything we do when utilizing our brand is to convey that message to consumers. We want to be the business that they trust.
What are the components of your brand and how have you created it?
Griffin: It was created by years of consistent usage of the company logo and all components of the company image. We reach existing and potential customers on a regular basis through well-designed newsletters, television and radio commercials, direct mail, some print ads and through meaningful sponsorships. If an existing or even a prospective customer sees a marketing piece for Griffin Brothers, they should be able to know right away even without seeing the company name that it’s from Griffin Brothers.
Fleischmann: We are Community Tire and Automotive Service Specialists. The two main components of the message are: “We are your tire professionals” and “We are your auto repair and maintenance professionals.” This is supported by three main tag lines: “Dedicated to the communities we serve,” “If you are looking for a real deal, remember honesty is priceless,” and “The compliment of a referral is always appreciated.”
Enger: The number one component is our customers’ perceived value. Perceived value is created through hard, honest work. Anyone can cut prices, give discounts and double the difference back on purchases. This means customer loyalty is reduced to a compressed margin. Many retailers cut the price to compensate for their inferior customer service. Our brand represents quality, top-notch service and a culture of treating our customers with dignity. This all adds up to a perceived value worth the price. The component is training outstanding customer service and hiring people who understand the true meaning of it.
Michaels: There are several components to our brand: 1. Our name Tires, Tires, Tires. 2. Our mascot Tireman who stands 15 feet tall. Tireman is present at each of our locations, in the parking lot and on our printed materials. 3. Color branding We have been using a standardized color for our print ads, stationery, business cards and shirts worn by front counter staff and management.
How do you preserve and grow your brand?
Griffin: Preserving and growing our brand also means having reliable, trustworthy service advisors and technicians that are knowledgeable and treat all customers as they would a family member (or better!). It’s about taking extra care of our customers. For example, using disposable floor mats each and every time; after every service, no matter how big or small, we clean the front and back windshield, vacuum floor mats, clean wheels and shine tires for every customer’s vehicle.
Fleischmann: We continually remind our communities that we are locally owned and operated with heavy emphasis on honesty and integrity. We put the majority of our efforts into community involvement with grassroots marketing. We continually support local charities, chambers of commerce and do things for the good of the people in every community we serve. We make use of marketing programs that have the same level of commitment and dedication to our industry, one example would be AskPatty.com, which is a great image for our brand and very helpful in training our teams to be truly female friendly. For another example, a statement on one of our handouts includes the 20 most often asked repair questions. We believe in supporting ethical business practices in our local community. Not many people would consider a visit to a tire and auto repair center to be painless or, least of all, fun, but we are attempting to change that perception. We are just an average couple in what is perceived as a below average industry trying to make a difference.
Enger: You preserve and grow your brand every time your associate engages a customer. Their performance is measured not by daily sales, but by customers’ experiences. Word of mouth, grassroots and viral marketing will expand your customer base and grow your network of customers. Your customers will advertise for you.
Michaels: Ensuring consistency is the most important way to preserve and grow our brand. For example, using a consistent look in our advertising or a consistent tag to our radio spots helps preserve that brand among consumers. We have been able to grow our brand through expansion of marketing efforts into social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.
Do you feel it is important to have a strong brand? If so, why?
Griffin: Having a strong brand is vitally important! Without it, you’ll get lost in the shuffle and won’t give customers a reason to choose you. They need to be familiar with your name and brand and be comfortable with it.
Fleischmann: Yes. If not, you become the same as all the others and do not stand out for what you believe and do. As an example, in the fifth largest city in the U.S. (Phoenix), we stand out much greater than some of our competition that has many more points of sale. This is due to recognition for awards and community service. We will never let our brand get confused with the others. Someone must help set the standards.
Enger: Yes. A strong brand represents a feeling associated with your business, good or bad. Obviously, a good feeling will generate more sales and customers than a bad one. A brand can become strong from two of three elements low price, quality products and great service. We provide all three.
Michaels: It is tremendously important to have a strong brand. We are in an industry where there is a lot of competition, so a strong brand helps set us apart and keeps us in the top of customers’ minds. It gives the customers confidence in us, but I also think it provides a great opportunity to empower our employees to be ambassadors of our brand. It becomes more than just a brand it’s a culture.
How do you protect your brand?
Griffin: First and foremost, we are consistent consistent in our service, how we treat customers and the cleanliness and convenient amenities of our facilities, to name a few. We also project a consistent image by having all our marketing materials, right down to our invoices, created by a design/advertising agency. They ensure that every last thing with the Griffin Brothers’ name on it is pristine.
Fleischmann: We remain constant in our message, we continue to get exposure for our charitable efforts and we always put our customers first. We are very active with the Better Business Bureau, receiving an A-plus rating and receiving the Better Business Bureau Ethics award in 2009. We are involved with local schools such as Arizona State University and W.P. Carey School of Business, where we are invited to discuss the importance of ethical business practices with business classes. We empower our staff to make decisions when things go right or wrong and always support whatever they commit us to. We teach everyone in our team to always do what they say, even when they have over-promised or under-priced. We do some unusual things on our website, like providing everyone with my personal cell phone number and my personal home phone number. If we do not hear the complaints, we can’t fix them. We are very active in social media; when a customer makes a statement that is less than flattering, we immediately respond and see that the impression from that customer is repaired both online and in person. We also never try to remove the negatives. There are not many, but they make us real, and it helps others understand we are paying attention and solving problems.
Enger: You must protect your good name daily, because in the course of a day it will be challenged many times. It is a total team effort to preserve it. You must make every effort to ensure the customer has a great experience while doing business with your company. Your customers will protect it for you.
Michaels: We have started the process of a federal trademark, but we believe there are many other ways to protect the brand. One way is to ensure consistency in our message. We continually talk about our honesty and the way we provide quality service at a fair price with this tagline: “Keeping you safe, saving you money and telling you the truth.” We also keep consistency in the appearance of our stores and our marketing materials. We believe this is a way that we build customer confidence and trust in our brand. They know who we are, they know they will feel comfortable in our stores and they know we are going to work hard to provide the best possible customer service.
How did you develop the concept for your brand?
Griffin: The brand was developed to convey our business philosophy outstanding service at a value with a progressive edge. Our slogan is “Family Owned, Cust-omer Driven,” and we live by that.
Fleischmann: We created a contest with our customer base titled “Name that tire and auto service store.” We had gifts, including a set of tires and wheels for the winner and some service gift certificates for the runners-up. The winning entry was from a long-time customer, Kay Eskridge. The entry read, “Howard, say what you have always exhibited in your business, a supporter of your community! Call it Community Tire.” Thus was born Community Tire and Auto Service Specialists.
Enger: Through focus groups and studying retail sales, I realized the best customers do not run off for the competition every time the competition shouts “sale, sale, sale.” Some customers only look for bargains and have little or no loyalty, which is fine. I prefer to cater to the ones most loyal and who appreciate a friend in the business. Once the idea was set that continuous improvement is necessary to preserve the brand, then it becomes a commodity.
Michaels: According to founder Dan Nothdurft, “I had been a farmer, so I didn’t know that much about the tire business when I was first starting out. I had an uncle in the business, however, so I did talk with him about all aspects of the business, including choosing a name. As I thought about it, I wanted a name to clearly state what our business was about tires. It just seemed to me that saying the word repetitively three times was a way to reinforce who we were. It set us apart and created an identifiable difference. For the most part, though, in terms of branding, we just kind of took it a day at a time and went with our gut feeling about how we wanted to build our identity through the Tires, Tires, Tires brand.”
What questions did you ask and have answered as you developed your brand?
Griffin: We didn’t go the route of focus groups or surveys. We just knew we wanted to convey quality and look as professional as we are.
Fleischmann: We asked ourselves the following: Who are we? Who do we want to be? Who do our customers think we are? What brand helps explain who we are? Is it a brand that will stand the test of time? Will the brand have the same clear message in years to come?
Enger: We asked our customers what they like and don’t like about buying tires. We found the customers judged the quality and value of the tire by the level of service we provided during the installation process. This gives us a huge advantage to solve customers’ issues related to the quality and workmanship of the tires we sell. It also gives us a distinct advantage when dealing with tire manufacturers that understand the value of a premium installer who represents their products to the consumer. This allows them to ride the same benediction and positive brand experience that makes us successful. I believe tire manufacturers that align themselves with the finest service providers will sell more future tires and have better customers. Tire manufacturers who sell through subpar service centers will have more tire complaints, ride disturbances, and diminished brand value based on poor customer service. The best manufacturers will eliminate subpar installers and continuously train the best ones.
Why did you choose the direction you did for creating your brand?
Griffin: Again, it fits our style and business philosophy.
Fleischmann: In 2001, we had turned management over to other parties and adopted their name for the company. In 2003, we had to step back in and upright the company. At that time, we did not feel that the former name represented us well. In the process of finding a name and creating a new brand, one of our managers suggested we ask our customers what name they thought we should use. From that suggestion, we created a contest and had six months of fun with customers, as well as many different associations. The rest, as they say, is history.
Enger: Great customer service provides a great return on investment. It is very expensive to use broadcast advertising and grow your business in a traditional way. I am a small business owner with traditional values. The value I bring to the consumer is one that is most important to them customer satisfaction. I listen to my customers and provide them with down-home family service. My sales meetings are about improving our level of service. Of course, we have sales goals and cheer for great months. These are our rewards for providing a high quality brand focused on great customer service.
Michaels: As we thought about our business, we looked at other sectors of business, and we realized that women are primary influencers behind many household and spending decisions. We thought about what we could do to separate ourselves from other shops. We did some competitive shopping, and when we went to other shops, we saw a lot of sports-related magazines and non-existent or masculine décor. Almost every decision we make is with our customers in mind primarily women ages 25-54. We chose a color scheme that was inviting, comfortable and not overly masculine. We don’t have a waiting area we have a Customer Care Center that is truly part of our Tires, Tires, Tires brand. It is something for which we are well-known.
Pam Gatto, Gatto’s Tires & Auto Service, notes that, “We originally were a Goodyear tire center and then became an independent Goodyear dealer. At that time, we were still known as Gatto’s Goodyear in the communities we served.
“As our reputation for good service and honesty grew, we decided we needed to brand ourselves. That’s when we became Gatto’s Tires & Auto Service and started developing our own identity. We built our logo at that time and then we coined the ‘GottaGo2Gattos tagline,’ which we use in print, on radio and TV, on billboards and in our jingle.”
Gatto said that the brand represents a family owned and operated business where the owners and employees participate in the communities served and where customers can get in touch with them easily. “Complaints are handled quickly and equitably,” says Gatto. “We recently trademarked ‘GottaGo2Gattos’ because a local car dealer, Gator Chrysler, started using ‘Gotta Get to Gator.’”
Different Methods, Same Goals
The dealers interviewed for this article have their individual methods of creating, building and protecting their brands, but all have the same goals creating and improving profitability. Just as in communicating a message, a brand perception that is solid becomes reality to your customers.
Tire dealers who are interested in building or improving their brand should check out a book titled The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, by Al Ries and his daughter, Laura. Dealers also should consider obtaining The Brand Called You, by Peter Montoya and Tim Vandehey, which provides ideas about personal branding, an important factor for the leader of a business. Finally, go to martinlindstrom.com, which provides a list of branding articles recommended by Martin Lindstrom.
Creating a brand doesn’t happen overnight. Tire dealers should use some of the steps recommended in this article to begin to build or improve their brands. Do it now; it’s important to your dealership and its future.