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AutoNation announced that nearly all of their stores will carry the AutoNation name, similar to CarMax. The shift from the AutoNation collection of stores to an AutoNation brand carries with it a lot of implications. Experimentation will undoubtedly continue, but a brand image demands a high degree of uniformity. You can't have one GM trying to become the second coming of Carl Sewell and another GM under the same brand name going on TV in a clown costume and acting crazy. Some degree of uniformity with respect to promotions becomes mandatory under a brand strategy.
You can't have one store delivering full value transparency and another refusing to price their vehicles online. So there needs to be a uniform level of transparency across the brand, and AutoNation appears clear about their dedication to transparency as a competitive advantage. Already, stores uniformly offer a three-day, 150-mile money back guarantee.
Brand uniformity is easier across used cars, and CarMax has done a good job of it. AutoNation is not including its highline vehicles as part of this move. Selling Bentley under the same brand name as Smart is a bit like trying to expand the Kmart name across Tiffany stores. There will need to be some level of uniformity around the quality level of used vehicles and the quality of customer care provided. The more different the product mix is across a retail brand strategy the greater the need for uniformity around how those products are merchandised and delivered.
Much of the uniformity necessary has already taken place. It would be a mistake to announce a national brand strategy and then hope it can be pulled off. AutoNation has not been secretive about its long move in this direction. By the firm's own accounts, this has been in process for at least 13 years. Other dealer groups appear to be taking similar steps toward the same objective. It will take time.
CNN compared the AutoNation move to becoming the McDonald's of car dealers. I'm not sure that is a good analogy. There are some things AutoNation still cannot do, like national advertising. Outside of manufacturers, only AutoTrader.com and Cars.com have enough national coverage to cost effectively buy advertising on a national level. (I know others have done it, but I said cost effectively.) AutoNation claims to have no ambition of becoming a truly national brand. However, AutoNation already had branding strategies within various regions. There is a reason they are moving forward with a national brand strategy. This strategy of a national brand without national distribution would have been less beneficial in a TV era than it will be in the Internet era.
While I am not permitted to discuss the online marketing I performed for one publicly held dealer group. I can say the Internet has opened new opportunities for retailers with a widely recognized brand name selling dozens of nameplates. In my first book, Sales Integration, I suggested some of the changing opportunities. This first is but one of the many milestones to be crossed in the future of automotive retail.
(Sources used include public documents and articles from AutoNation, Automotive News. CNN, Sun Sentinel, and Bloomberg)