Consider Franklin Sussex Auto Mall in rural northern New Jersey. The mega dealership goes off its rocker for a few days almost every month: basketball free throws in the showroom during March Madness; wild, as well as domesticated, animals during its safari event each September; and a sand beach complete with lounge chairs and palm trees during July.
In the background, the staff is going about its business – or at least trying to. Over the past 10 years, the crowds have been huge for its biggest events, and it has sometimes been impossible to sell a single vehicle, says general manager Bill Snouffer. That's not the total loss that it might appear to be. The promotions create "buzz", which is something even the most sophisticated "customer management systems" can't deliver on their own.
That buzz translates into higher sales – perhaps not on the day of the event, but certainly in the weeks and months to come, the dealerships say.
Cash giveaways or vehicle raffles are among the most common promotions. Others seem to push the limits of human ingenuity. Customers at Bozard Lincoln-Mercury in St. Augustine, Fla. for instance, just launched one of the most unusual promotions in memory: Customers didn't have to pay for vehicles bought in March if it rained more than one-inch on the morning of April 8.
Brad Benson, of the country's largest Hyundai dealer, in Southern New Jersey practices a different kind of wacky. Benson, a former offensive lineman for the New York Giants, has become more infamous around the New York-New Jersey metro area for his ads than his 1986 Super Bowl ring. Benson takes an actual event from the news and writes his own crazy riff on it. In 2009 when a Northwest Air flight veered more than 100 miles off course, Benson's radio ad suggested the pilot and co-pilot were in a "Brokeback Mountain" situation, referring to the film about two gay cowboys. More recently, he made fun of a New York Congressman who was forced to resign after sending a topless picture of himself to a woman he was soliciting via Craigslist.com. "Playing off actual news events means I'll never run out of material," says Benson.
Such crazy antics, for some consumers, give car dealers a bad reputation. "I don't think you will see too many Mercedes or Jaguar dealers hanging on a crane or shooting themselves out of a cannon," says marketing consultant Dennis Keene. "But for mass brands like Hyundai, Kia, Chevy or Ford, it can work because when it's done right, it engages people to listen and pay attention to what you are selling."
Indeed, with fewer people reading printed daily newspapers with screaming full-page dealer ads, the smarter car dealers are using radio ads and social networking sites like Facebook to entertain the public before pitching a price or lease deal.
Dealerships especially like long shots with big rewards. For example, a contest tied to a kickoff return for a touchdown during an NFL Football game on a specific Sunday. They create lots of buzz and attention on the dealer despite there being a small chance someone will win. And even then, dealers are likely to insure themselves against the loss.
Over Labor Day weekend in 2010, the Mastria Auto Group in Raynham, Mass., made this offer: If the Patriots scored a touchdown on a kickoff return in the season opener two weeks later, every customer who bought a vehicle that weekend would get a $5,000 rebate. When star wide receiver Brandon Tate scored with a 97-yard kick-off return, Mastria had to pay off 32 purchasers. Odds On Promotion of Reno, Nev., an insurance company, picked up the tab, along with the $25,000 award at Classic Chevrolet in Owasso, Okla., last year.
The dealerships are mostly confident their wacky promotions work, even if hard figures are tough to come by. Todd Collins, general manager at Checkered Flag Volkswagen in Virginia Beach, Va., said sales have doubled since it started doing its "Buy a car from a Rock Star" promotions four years ago. In the event's earliest form, before Collins fine-tuned the campaign, the staff simply dressed up like rock and pop stars such as Lady Gaga, Madonna, Ozzy Osbourne, Michael Jackson and dozens more.
Checkered Flag VW held its first "rock star" event during the summer, and its costumed staffs sweltered in 90-degree heat every time they left the building. Worse, if customers hadn't seen the ad before coming in, they were made uneasy by the scene. Collins solved the problems by moving the event to late October, just before Halloween. Checkered Flag VW also turned the event into a fundraiser for the St. Mary's Home for the Disabled Children in Norfolk, donating a 2010 New Beetle for a raffle last year. It likewise hooked up with a local radio station and held singing contests in bars and restaurants to increase the buzz. "Our goal is to keep growing the event until we have a major act that is willing to come and play at it," Collins said.
Michael Jackson is off the table. And Ozzy and Gaga are probably too expensive. But to go with the singing contest theme, Collins might try some rejected American Idol contestants as judges. The job of dealers, besides keeping good reputation for service and customer handling, is getting consumers who are in the market for a car to notice their deal. And for some dealers, the wackier the idea the better it pays off.