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Cause Marketing: Philanthropy & The Car Dealer

Cause Marketing

When “normal” people think about car dealers their initial assumption is typically that we are a bunch of swindlers out to take them for all they are worth.  This is a fair assumption based on history, and unfortunately based on a very small portion of modern dealers.  In general, however, this misperception of the crooked car dealer couldn’t be further from the truth.  Most successful automotive sales people, dealer principles, OEMs and dealer partner companies are the most philanthropic souls I’ve had the pleasure to know.  Why the disconnect between reality vs. perception?  No one is talking about the good we are doing… not even us.

Every car dealer I know gives back in one way or another.  Some donate money. Others give away cars. Some organize volunteer opportunities for employees, host community appreciation events, or offer special discounts for service members, teachers, firefighters, etc.  The list of ways car dealerships support our communities is endless.  Why aren’t we broadcasting this good news?  Don’t we know Car Guys need the good press to help clear all our names?  Ironically, the reason is most likely just as honorable as the act of giving - we don’t want to toot our own horn.  Most dealers who give do so with no intention of reaping benefit.  They give for the sake of giving, helping, and growing communities, individuals, and making the world a better place.  It is never (or rarely) a marketing ploy, so the thought of “bragging” about it never crosses our minds.   

It’s understandable, even noble, to seek no fame or fortune in return for philanthropic efforts.  It is possible that some may misinterpret any mention of your good deeds as an arrogant act.  You can’t please all the people all the time, but you must get the word out.  There is a right way and a wrong way to mention your philanthropic affiliations in marketing, on your website, and on your social networking sites.  Let’s start with the wrong way.

Simply broadcasting the information is not enough:  “John Doe Dealership Donated $5,000 to the Boys and Girls Club.”  This opens you up to a lot of questions. Great!  Why?  What are they doing with that money?  Why the Boys and Girls Club and not one of the 150,000 other available non-profits?  Why didn’t John Doe Dealership donate that money to the Girl Scouts, United Way, or the Wounded Warrior Project?   Etc…

Instead, tell a story.  Explain your dealership’s philosophy of giving back.  Invite the viewer into your decision-making process regarding where you chose to contribute.  Offer individual testimonials from people directly impacted by your charity of choice.  Put a name, face, and story with the headline.  Give the reader an opportunity to learn more by including a call-to-action, and information on how they can join with you for greater impact.  Offer a place for them to suggest future efforts for your dealership’s consideration.  Instead of using language like “donated to” or “volunteered at”, use language which conveys a team effort, like “partnered with”, or “joined forces with.”  It softens the delivery and imparts a feeling of on-going support. 

It is vitally important to avoid any attempt to capitalize directly on your contribution.  Campaigns offering to donate $25 for every test drive, or $5 for every new Facebook like, while well-meaning, can come across as phony, pushy, and sales-y, leaving clients to question why you don’t just donate the money if you have it to give.  Contrarily, I believe an offer to donate a portion of proceeds is a safe idea.  It comes across less as an attempt to drum up business, and more as an attempt to include the shopper in the effort. 

A more impactful technique is to partner with one specific organization and become synonymous with their brand.  Offer ongoing support, group events, and sponsorships, be inextricably linked to a cause worth championing and never waver in your support.  Cause marketing works best by word-of-mouth, which takes time.  That said, you don’t have to sit back and wait. There is nothing wrong with using your visibility, and ad dollars, to help raise awareness and additional funds for your chosen partner. 

An excellent example of Cause Marketing done right comes from outside the automotive industry, from a chainsaw manufacturer, STIHL.  If you’re unfamiliar, they make the best selling chainsaw in the country, yet refuse to sell it in big box stores like Lowes and Home Depot, reserving their product, and support for mom and pop hardware shops.  STIHL launched IndedpendentWeStand.org, an independent website, as a hub, and easy search engine for independently owned businesses.  STIHL’s campaign to promote and educate consumers about small-business patronage has been wildly successful.  Their business, in turn, has flourished. 

From this we learn that Cause Marketing is not taboo, it is normal.  When a shopper visits your website, showroom, or Facebook page, they want to see what you’re doing that is making the world a better place.  They’re not going to ask you, and they are not going to look very hard, so don’t hide it on your “About Us” page, or bury it in the blog.  Feature it, highlight it, and invite them to join the crusade.  Don’t shy away from Cause Marketing, just be tactful.

Mike Jeffs
Great message @Christine. Thanks for the blog. Dealerships do so much in their local communities, but much of it is unknown to the public. This is a great way to look at it.
Christine Robertson
Thanks, Mike! I witnessed this first-hand at my dealership. It took a lot of persuasion for the dealer to allow me to talk about our efforts. When he finally did, the response from our customers was overwhelmingly positive!

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