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Profiting on Brand Consistency

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Turns out, it doesn’t make much difference if you make thousands of dollars a year or hundreds of millions: Defining your company’s brand is tough. Clark Plucinski, executive vice president of True2Form Collision Repair Centers, a 40-shop operation on the East Coast with nearly $100 million in annual revenue, believes successful marketing centers around a professional, consistent message. But he says even the big guys have trouble getting it right.

“I’m surprised that even some very large organizations—$300-million companies, $400, $500 million—have no standard around their brand,” he says. “I was working with a company that was approaching $750 million in sales, a parts procurement organization, and three people came in. Each of them handed me a card, and every single one had a different look. What happens is that people tend to go out quickly and make these kinds of decisions,” he says. “Reeling that in and building a standard around the way the brand’s being put out is just so, so important.”

Plucinski has worked hard to create a clear, concise brand that carries through every facet of his company, from the True2Form website to the uniforms to the business cards. And the best part is, although his company has 600 employees and works on 60,000 cars a year, Plucinski says his strategies are every bit as applicable to small operations.

Highlight Your Strengths

A good brand—whether you’re creating one from scratch or redefining an existing image—isn’t just a logo or slogan. It’s a way to communicate what makes your business unique. “If you look at collision repair in yellow pages advertising, which is shrinking rapidly, it’s amazing how many of them say the exact same thing,” Plucinski says.

Taking time to rethink your message can dramatically boost your business. True2Form was born as the result of a 1998 merger of three successful East Coast operations: Wagner Getz, Dunn’s International and Plucinski’s company, BCP Auto Body. Wagner Getz did a lot of work for large dealerships. Dunn’s International serviced a high percentage of foreign cars. “And in our case,” says Plucinski, “we were more interested in communities.” His shop courted a lot of neighborhood business, and their name reflected that: “The ‘B’ stood for Beltsville and the ‘C’ stood for College Park—the two areas that we were located in,” he says.

Once the merger was complete, their first marketing challenge was obvious: Because all three companies catered to different types of customers, they needed to create a brand identity that encompassed their collective strengths.

Let Your Customers Guide You

So how did True2Form come to be? The way Plucinski tells it, all they had to do was listen. “The public chose True2Form,” he says.

More specifically, focus groups provided some meaningful lessons for the leaders in the newly merged company. “The key here is not so much what we think is important, but what your customer is telling you,” Plucinski says. The groups, which were recommended by the advertising firm retained to help the three companies merge their identities, overwhelmingly preferred the name True2Form, and also favored the company’s eventual color scheme of red, white and blue. “It was a period of time when we were going through a high level of patriotism,” he says.

The company motto, “For the way your car was made to be” was also established by focus groups. “It’s primarily a nice way of saying we’re going to put it back to preaccident condition,” Plucinski says. “And ‘True2Form’ established the fact that it would come back true to form. I probably wasn’t the one to raise my hand to vote for that, but I was incredibly surprised by the consistency in the message from the customers. I think we were all pretty startled to hear what we heard.”

If focus groups aren’t in your budget, Plucinski says there’s a cheaper method that’s equally effective: Simply ask your customers what they think. “If a customer picks up the car and is very satisfied, then run some ideas by them,” he says. “Tell them you’re thinking of maybe changing the look and feel of your company name and ask for opinions. It’s from that that you start to formulate some ideas and get a different perspective.”

Once you’ve settled on a name and message that represents your company, stay on point. “Continuity of image throughout everything we do is key,” says True2Form General Counsel P.J. Ruiter, whose MBA and English degree have proven helpful in driving the company’s marketing strategies. “From signage, business cards, the company logos that appear on our uniforms, all the way to our website, we really strive to keep up with other best-in-class businesses,” he says.

Protect Your Image

Even if you’re managing your brand well, a snazzy logo or catchy name won’t mean much if you’re not putting forth a professional image, Ruiter cautions. “One thing that drives me nuts is when you see a business that’s trying so hard, but they blow the basic things like punctuation and grammar,” laments Ruiter. “You have to have lots of people read something before you publish it. You could be great at the core function of repairing automobiles, but bad grammar is going to affect how people perceive your business.”

Don’t fall prey to the notion that customers don’t expect grammatical perfection from a collision repair shop, he says. “It’s hard for us because we’re a business that most people don’t give a great deal of respect to in many regards. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still strive to present the absolute best face that we can.”

To that effect, employee training is paramount. To ensure its staff understands the company’s philosophy and is equipped to handle all types of customer relations, all True2Form employees are required to graduate from the company’s True2Form University before they begin working in a shop. The online program trains the staff on everything from human resources to the company’s insurance programs. (On the workmanship end, technicians are also I-CAR trained and “heavily into ASE training,” Plucinski says.)

Advertise Wisely

Once you have a brand you’re proud of, the next hurdle is figuring out how to spread the word. “There is no perfect formula,” Plucinski admits. “It has a great deal to do with where your locations are and how long you’ve been there.” The way to calculate what’s best for your shop is to know who your existing customers are, he says. “If you’re going to get a message to the customer, what is it you want to say? And how do you know that if you don’t know who your customers are?” he asks. “If 95 percent of the customers that come in your door are coming there as a result of an insurance company, then advertising isn’t necessarily that important. But if you believe you can grow your business through ads, then who is it that you’re going after? The commercial companies? Insurance agencies? Or are you looking for fleet work? Every one of those areas has a different flavor.”

After you’ve defined your target customer, carefully consider the various types of media, he says. True2Form has had good luck with radio, and to make their message even more memorable, Plucinski worked with the telephone company to acquire the phone number 1-888-2BE-TRUE.

“[The number] works well for us if we’re going to do a major TV, cable or radio campaign,” he says. “People driving 60 miles an hour are probably not going to reach over and try to find a piece of paper.” He says the company had to wait awhile for the number to become available, but when it did, they “jumped all over it,” he says.

Print advertising, although it’s changed drastically during the past five years, has worked for True2Form in small, “community-type” papers. They made a point to run their ad in the same spot with the same message every time the paper published. “It takes two to three years of that consistency before you really start to have an effect,” Plucinski says. “We’ve done marketing studies on radio and cable that proves that out pretty consistently.”

Branding doesn’t end with written materials, says Rajiv Kapur, president of Configurations, a company that focuses on experiential branding. Every customer interaction counts, too. “My interpretation of a brand is that it’s a promise,” Kapur says. “All of the visuals that we see are representational of the promise. But you need to fulfill that brand with the experience.” He says that smaller operations in particular should strive to communicate their passion for the work to their customers. “Don’t think of yourself as a small shop, think of yourself as a boutique,” he says.

Maintain the Right Online Presence

In today’s marketplace, it’s important not to neglect your Web presence. “We’re in the process of completely rebuilding [our website],” says Plucinski. “On a Web page, you have to be able to grab the customer. You only have a few seconds to really get their attention. We try to decide why is it they’re going to our Web page. They may be going simply to find an address, so you have to make it easy for the customer.” True2Form’s new site will feature photos of the company’s work, on the home page, to help customers get a sense of the quality of repair work.

While a website is undeniably important, use common sense when considering newer online networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, says Ruiter. “I struggle with the issue of social media when it comes to our industry,” he says. “Social media works well for high-touch businesses: a local grocery store or Starbucks, where they can offer coupons,” he says. “This industry doesn’t offer the same sorts of opportunities to garner casual sales.”

In fact, Ruiter worries social networking may do more harm than good: “Frankly, you run more of a risk if you are a single-shop operator trying to be clever, particularly if you don’t have the skill set for marketing or writing. I think this huge crush so many industries are making toward social media doesn’t translate very well for us.”

Defining your brand to customers is an important skill for any business owner. But if your margins are thin, don’t despair: Workmanship and customer service are still the tent poles of any successful shop, says Ruiter: “The best thing that we can do is do quality work, day in and day out. One of the most tried-and-true methods is word-of-mouth.”

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