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Building a Strong Community Presence

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Since leaving CARSTAR in 2006 and striking out on his own, Paul Van Aken has worked diligently to make sure his shop, Paul’s Quality Collision in Monroe, Mich., is in the public eye. But rather than turning to advertising, Van Aken’s shop has become a local fixture thanks to his community involvement, including his highly successful anti-texting-and-driving campaign. What’s more, the involvement has resulted in steady growth ever since.

The underlying theme in our marketing is being professional, trustworthy and a good citizen. Being in an accident is an anxious time for most customers. If they at least know there’s this good company that’s doing good things in the community, that’s already established some trust.

Of course, you have to follow that up with a good repair experience. On top of our consistent community involvement, we have a beautiful storefront, our customer service is top notch, and we’re meticulous about our repairs.

All of that combined has led to not only steady growth these past couple of years, but also an undeniable presence in the community.

I opened my business in 1982 after working in a body shop in high school and throughout college. In 1992, I joined CARSTAR, which I belonged to until 2006. While I was part of the CARSTAR network, I was on their marketing advisory board, along with a very respected marketing firm. Through that, I was privy to some pretty good marketing information and advice.

That firm did an extensive white paper about consumer loyalty that was the result of community research they had conducted. The bottom line was that the consumer choice was all about trust. If the consumer feels like they can trust somebody, they are more apt to go to that shop. It really clicked for me.

When I left CARSTAR, I was anxious about being on my own without having the backing of a huge network, so I felt a push to be aggressive about getting out in the community and making sure people knew my name. I joined several service organizations, including the chamber of commerce and Kiwanis.

Through the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, I attended the Leadership Monroe program, which is a leadership program focused on community service. It’s a nine-month program that dedicates one day a month to organize programs that introduce you to local institutions doing good things in your county, whether it’s in education, law enforcement, community service, or health care. It’s a very successful program that helps you establish a strong connection to the community and it gave me a lot of ideas about how I could get involved.

During that same time, I was writing a monthly column in our local magazine about helpful driving tips. I was writing one about youth driving tips and, as I was doing research, the texting-and-driving issue kept coming up. My kids were getting into texting at that time and it was something that was emerging in my life. It was a real hot topic that had a lot of social implications and was dangerous.

FULL EXPERIENCE: Van Aken’s community involvement is how he established his shop’s brand identity. But more common tactic—like a clean, professional appearance and courtesy shuttles—help the business retain its customer base. Photo by Carey Crays

FULL EXPERIENCE: Van Aken’s community involvement is how he established his shop’s brand identity. But more common tactic—like a clean, professional appearance and courtesy shuttles—help the business retain its customer base. Photo by Carey Crays

I started thinking of ways that I could create a campaign around this or get involved with the schools. My kids were in high school at the time, so it was easy for me to build those relationships with the school. I think it’s important to have a relationship with your local schools and school administrators. Get to know them, if you can, and help out where you’re able to or when they ask you.

From there, a teacher friend of mine told me her school’s Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) group was doing a “no phone zone” pledge. They were dedicating two all-school assemblies to this no-texting-and-driving issue, and they asked me to participate. That was my first high school program and it spurred the idea of doing my own program.

I started to get serious about creating my own no-texting-and-driving campaign. I knew that since I was dealing with teenagers, it needed to capture their attention. I had a local artist I often work with, who was a cartoonist for Disney, create a caricature drawing of myself and a logo that says “plz dnt txt n drive.” We put that logo on a T-shirt that we hand out at the presentations. From there, I created an hour-long program that includes video, pictures and music. We even involve the drama club and have them create a skit about a social conflict stemming from an accident involving the families of two different students.

A BETTER IMAGE: Van Aken hired a former Disney cartoonist to draw up the logo for his anti-texting-and-driving campaign. It’s now a large part of all his shop’s marketing tactics.  Photo by Carey Crays

It took me the better part of a year to create the entire campaign, which launched in 2010. I’ve been doing the presentations consistently ever since.

I know that you can lose an audience in a minute, especially a teenage one, so I made sure to create a compelling and jam-packed agenda that really slams them. I swear, you can invariably hear a pin drop at certain points of the program.

I’ve been to all the schools and I’ve given away somewhere between 8,000 to 9,000 of these T-shirts. As time has gone on, that logo has become a huge part of our overall brand. It’s on our website, social media, our advertising, our company car. It’s very recognizable and it’s how many people are first introduced to us.

If you’re interested in getting involved in the community, it doesn’t just have to be one cause. We also do a damaged car makeover that’s a twist on the show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” We partner with a local prominent radio station to give away a free repair of up to $5,000 for a deserving family. The radio station promotes it and all you have to do is go to our website and fill out a form. We always get a couple hundred entries and then an independent committee chooses the recipient. After the repairs are done, we’ll throw an open house where we do an unveiling and the radio does a live broadcast.

Besides that, we also host a Christmas party for the Salvation Army, we sponsor sports teams, we attend our local fire station open house. I try to go for things that are not only popular in the community, but that we’re also passionate about.

Through all of these efforts, we’ve gotten a lot of press coverage,  be it newspaper, TV, or radio. We almost always have our picture in the newspaper when we do one of the presentations or a car unveiling. For the damaged car makeover, not only did the radio station promote this event, they also comped me roughly 60 commercials.

It’s important to leverage that press. A free story on something that you’ve done for your community or by being a good citizen carries a lot more weight than many ads worth thousands of dollars. We’ve done a very good job in that respect. 

I don’t think there’s any question that it’s had an impact on our business. First of all, since we started doing this, we’ve experienced consistent growth. Our community image has been impacted so favorably. It’s really the essence of who we are. I wholeheartedly believe in that investment in time from both a personal standpoint and a business standpoint. I think it’s good for business and, conversely, I think it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t happen overnight, but if you’re consistent, genuine and generous with both your time and money, it will come back to you.

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