What makes companies like Coca-Cola, Harley Davidson, Southwest Airlines and Disney successful? Is it because they sell the best product for the lowest price? Not necessarily. These companies are successful because consumers love their brands.

Loving a brand goes beyond brand recognition. People don’t buy products or services. They buy relationships. They buy a brand because they like how that brand makes them feel.

To develop a relationship with your customers, you must be authentic, as in, being true to your personality, spirit or character. Here’s how to build an authentic brand.

Identify your purpose and passion

Why are you in business? Hopefully, it’s not just to sell cars and make money. That is not a passion that anybody can get behind. As a business owner, you have the power to create jobs, develop employees’ careers and give back to the community. How are you doing that?

Identify your differentiator

What does your dealership do better than any other dealership? This has to be real. Whatever you choose, you better be able to “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk.” If you promote a no-hassle experience and then start harassing customers as soon as they walk on the lot, that is not being authentic.

Twenty years ago, I worked at a dealership. In our service department there was a guy whose first name began with an “E” and last name began with a “Z.” On his name tag he chose to just have his initials, EZ. Of course, just about every customer asked what EZ stood for, and his reply was always “I’m easy to do business with.”

I tell you what, the customers remembered him and asked for him. EZ took something he already possessed and built a brand out of it. That’s what you need to do with your dealership.

Know your customers

Building authenticity in a brand cannot be accomplished with a “me” persona. You have to find out what is important to your customers. What do they value most in a sales or service experience?

Get to know your customers by conducting surveys, hosting customer nights and using social media as an information-gathering and listening tool (instead of as a promotional tool—just stop that). Also, take the time to have real conversations with customers when they visit your dealership. People love to talk about themselves!

Change the way you communicate

Once you have identified your purpose and differentiator, you have eliminated 80 percent of the noise in terms of what your message should be. When you learn what your customers want, it should be relatively easy to give them that experience.

Now it’s time to review the messaging used on your website, in your marketing communications and to your own employees.

Most dealership marketing is very “me” focused. It’s all about the dealership and what they do and what they offer. I rarely see verbiage about the customer, what they want and how they’re going to feel when they visit your dealership.

Have you ever seen an ad for Hallmark cards? Hallmark never promotes that they have the best selection of cards for the best prices. Their ads focus on a person who receives a card and how that card makes that person feel.

How do your customers feel when they visit your dealership? What concerns do they have? How do you, as a dealership, address those concerns? How do your customers feel when they drive off the lot? Hopefully, they feel happy and confident they got a good deal. But the focus of your message should not be on the deal; it should be on customer emotions.

In a nutshell, all of your website and marketing communications should be about your customers, not about you!

It’s also critically important to convey your new messaging to your employees. They too should know what your dealership’s purpose is, what differentiates you from competition, as well as what your customers expect when they visit.

Instead of advertising a sale or promoting your service specials, tell a story. Start a conversation. Reframe your existing messages from what you do, to how you can help your customers. Use visual imagery like photos and videos to convey emotion.

Your message should always focus on your strengths. Admit when you are wrong. If your customers catch even the slightest whiff of an inauthentic message, they will never be loyal.

Deliver on your promise, every time

The final step in building an authentic brand is consistency. You may want to create a quality assurance process to ensure that your customers receive the same experience every time they visit your dealership. Once you refine your internal processes to deliver that experience, I recommend using customer surveys and mystery shopping to track whether the processes are being followed on a consistent basis.

Building a brand is not a “one and done” deal. You must communicate your brand message loud and often and forever. Eventually, it will become ingrained in your culture and your customers will perceive you as a brand they love.

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