High Horsepower Marketing

May 1, 2015
Looking to accelerate his shop’s marketing efforts, Matthew Ross invested in a special vehicle

The sight is impossible to miss:

A lime-green, 707-horsepower 2015 Dodge Challenger Hellcat zooming through historic downtown Conway, Ark.

Besides the nearly neon color, it’s decked out in black and white graphics that take a page from the Naval fighter airplane from which the Hellcat gets its name—a Navy insignia, kill tags and F6F badge (the fighter plane’s number). It’s a car that looks ready for the drag strip, yet above the wheel, another can’t-miss graphic reveals the Hellcat is heading to a different destination: Pro Auto Collision.

That head-turning reaction is exactly what Pro Auto Collision co-owner Matthew Ross is after. 

“We want to meet our customers and give them something to get excited about,” he says.

The Hellcat is part of a new marketing initiative at the shop, one geared toward creating a more engaged customer base with a deeper connection to their local collision shop.

“Car repair is not something that many people get excited about,” Ross says. “We wanted to do things to participate in our community that really gives people a sense of connection to us.”

Creating that sense of connection, however, meant letting go of traditional marketing methods and taking a chance on a marketing tool that Ross says was potentially a huge risk.

The Backstory

Pro Auto had already experienced significant growth since Ross took over as third-generation co-owner in 2004, along with his father, Neal. In the 10 years since Ross, Pro Auto went from a more modest $600,000 per year in sales to topping $2 million. In addition, the shop also has a successful towing service and a small car lot and auto auction.    

Besides an increase in revenue, Ross also maintained a healthy advertising and marketing budget of 4 percent of yearly sales and emphasized getting the shop’s name out in the community. That advertising included billboards, newspaper ads, and double-page spreads in every Yellow Pages directory.

“It worked, in terms of getting our name out there,” he says.

The problem, he says, was that it was a losing game.

“As a single-shop organization, we looked at the potential of a multi-shop organization coming to town. We can’t stand up to them, dollar for dollar. When we thought of a systemic threat to our advertising, it was someone just being willing to spend more money,” he says. “That really transitioned us into that thought process of thinking, ‘Instead of throwing money at the problem, what can we do to get into our community?’”

The Problem

Ross realized there were a number of problems with his current marketing model. First, while some forms were still successful, others—such as the billboards and Yellow Pages ads—were outdated and no longer reaching customers effectively. He says that few of his marketing efforts were actively engaging customers. Ross realized he needed to change his advertising and marketing from a more “passive” model to a proactive one. 

“What I would consider ‘passive advertising’ is something like a billboard, newspaper ad or something that you hope your viewership just happens to run into,” he says. 

With that in mind, Ross started brainstorming and keeping an eye out for out-of-the-box ideas and ways of engaging customers. When he saw a 1941 cab-over truck on sale for next to nothing on eBay last year, he bought it on impulse.

“We decided to put a billboard on the cab-over and drive and park it around town,” he says. “We started doing that and people started honking and waving. We thought, ‘This feels different than what we do.’”

While the idea was on the right track, Ross says there were still a few prohibiting factors to the cab-over. For one, the truck mainly sat in place and the shop couldn’t give customers rides in it. Because of that, it didn’t quite satisfy the element of “fun” that Ross wanted to convey.

“I’m a pretty positive, energetic guy. When we thought about this marketing thing and this pivot toward the community, we really wanted to find a way to have fun with people and get excited about that,” he says. “That’s when we started looking around for a car that was equally as appealing in curb appeal as it was functional.”

The Solution

Enter the Hellcat. It was the car of Ross’ dreams, and when he heard it was coming out, he immediately put his name on the eight-month waiting list for the special-order car. This purchase, however, was no impulse. 

First, he purposely purchased the vehicle in September from a dealership network that the shop purchases a large quantity of parts from and for which it does the towing.

“They are the largest dealership network in the area. Everyone knows the name around here,” Ross says. “That was a relationship that we kind of had but we hadn’t integrated really well with the sales side of it. It made sense for us on a lot of levels. That was another way for us to strengthen our relationship with another business in the community.”

Ross contacted the sales manager at the dealership, Superior Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram, and formed a partnership on the vehicle. Ross was able to negotiate a lower price and agreed to let the dealership use the vehicle as a marketing tool, as well. Since then, the dealership has featured the car in a commercial, displayed it in their showroom, and has the tag “Purchased with pride at Superior” on the bumper of the car. 

Next, he cancelled the billboard, for which he was paying a monthly fee of $1,200, and reallocated those funds to the $900 monthly car payment for the $67,000 Hellcat.

“I want to stress that all of this change in marketing was a reallocation of the budget we were already spending,” he says. “We undertook nothing new. We just put our money in a different spot.”

Ross also designed the graphics to not only include the shop’s name and phone number, but also took cues from the Naval fighter airplane the car is named after.

Upon arrival in December, the shop staff has started using the Hellcat in a number of ways: 

  • They’ve driven it in parades and events, such as a large hunting expo in the Conway area.
  • It’s used as a shuttle to bring customers home or to the local Enterprise office. When it’s not in use, the vehicle is parked outside the shop.
  • It’s become the cornerstone for a local cruise night. Ross partnered with a local car club and a 50s-style diner chain to host a monthly cruise-in night that has seen more than 50 cars signed up. 
    “Everyone brings their hot rod or classic car, they get a discount at the diner, and for an hour, everyone parks their car in a real prominent place in town,” he says. “At that event, we bring the Hellcat over. It’s a real family-friendly event.”
  • Customers are able to sign the deck lid with a Sharpie and leave a message on the car.
    “I hear all the time, ‘I signed your Hellcat,’” Ross says. “Come on, that’s a lot better than a billboard.”
  • Ross has created numerous social media campaigns around the vehicle. He routinely posts pictures, videos and contests. One Facebook contest asked followers to take a picture with the Hellcat and post it to the shop’s Facebook page to win $100. The shop did a controlled course burnout with the vehicle, filmed it from four different angles and posted the video on Facebook.

The Aftermath

Ross acknowledges that the Hellcat as a marketing tool was a risk when it comes to tracking results.

“My fear when we went into the social media was that it wouldn’t work,” he says.

Instead, he says the results have massively exceeded expectations in raising the profile of the shop in the area. In only nine months, the shop’s Facebook likes have gone from 200 to more than 1,600, posts featuring the Hellcat have garnered up to 88 likes, and the burnout video has had thousands of views. 

“They’re just shared over and over again,” Ross says. “That’s really something that I look for as a metric. If they share my content, I know I’ve hit home on something.”

In addition, Ross says customer interactions post repairs have gone up 20 percent and he says the Hellcat has brought more referrals and business than the billboard.

“We find a deeper connection with our customers through this medium,” he says. “You have to back that up with good customer service and quality repairs. When you put the whole package together, we’ve found the ability to stand out.”

The Takeaway

You don’t have to buy a new car to increase your business profile, Ross says. In fact, it isn’t about the Hellcat at all, it’s about finding fun ways to reach out and engage the community.

“If you look at the parts of your advertising budget that are just throwing things against the wall and hoping they’ll stick, you can reallocate those funds to something else,” he says. “Thinking outside of the conventional means makes you stand out and endears you to the community.”

And when it comes to promoting that outside-the-box idea, Ross emphasizes that it has to be compelling.

“You can’t just post something mundane and banal on a daily basis,” he says. “Then you’re just speaking to nobody.”