The chairman of a major international media company recently asked me if I believed that a dealer’s personal image still mattered given the dynamics of today’s Internet driven market place. The question was of interest to the CEO because decades earlier he had sold classified advertising to a start-up automobile dealer that eventually went on to achieve great success, both professionally and personally.
The question resonated with me because my father is Len Pollak and, in his home town of Gary, Indiana, almost everyone knew his name and the name of his dealership, Len Pollak Buick. His name appeared on the back of thousands of vehicles in town, in newspapers, bill boards, bus banners, city benches and a multitude of other high visibility locations. My father was also involved in dozens of community organizations, both civic and charitable. In short, the names Len Pollak and Len Pollak Buick were institutions in Gary, Indiana from 1960-1980. Even today, on my occasional trips back to the old ‘hood, people still stop and ask me about my father.
I think that the question about the value of a dealers’ personal brand image is also a relevant question for all automobile dealers to consider in light of the large investments they make in developing brand images for their dealership. But, wait a minute-- is the assumption that dealers are making large investments in building brand images for their dealerships still accurate? Well, they certainly make large investments in advertising and marketing in both traditional and on-line media. But does that guarantee that these investments are creating a meaningful “brand image”? If you consider the brand images “the low priced leader”, “discount king” or “mega dealer” then the answer is maybe not.
This is not the type of personal branding that made my father’s business a success and was the subject of the chairman’s question. Today there are still many dealerships around the country that maintain and work hard on developing similar personal dealer brand images in their community. The question today is how much does that really matter and does it warrant investment at the cost of other branding opportunities? I think that a positive personal image is always a benefit to any business. It is certainly important, if not obligatory for a business owner to return value and service to their community. These are immutable truths of business, past, present and future.
However, while automobile shoppers continue to be concerned about getting a good vehicle for a great price, I believe that they draw conclusions based on different data today. In the past, the personality of the dealer and his or her popularity in the community signaled the fact that they offered reliable transportation for a fair value. The implication was that they could not have achieved such prominence if these basic values were not present. Under such circumstances, dealers could effectively bolster their image through personal brand marketing.
Today, the question of what constitutes reliable transportation and fair prices are validated through other means, and arguably from the perspective of consumers, ones that are more reliable and trustworthy. For example, there are a multitude of third-party web sites that review and rate both new and used automobiles. There is a burgeoning community of social media sites that allow consumers to reference information about a vehicle’s reliability, operating costs as well as dealership sales and service experiences. Companies like CARFAX provide consumers with additional third-party information about a vehicle’s history. Most of these heavily used, trusted sources were not available in the years between 1960 and 1980. As such, dealer investments and personal brand image building were important and necessary.
In pondering my response to the chairman, I couldn’t help but reflect on my father and his reputation in Gary, Indiana. I knew that the response that I was about to give was sad, but nevertheless, truthful. I do not think that a dealer’s personal brand image means as much to automobile buyers as it did in the past. Rather, a dealership’s reputation and brand is created by their processes as opposed to their personalities. The Internet has conditioned today’s shoppers to get what they want, when they want it, the way the want it. These are the needs of the automobile shopper and those dealerships that create brands that address these needs will prevail over those that pursue lower priorities. The large investments in brand advertising need to focus on effective messaging that differentiate processes and properly address these new priorities.