Amy Schlueter, a dealer principal at the Waterloo, Ont.-based Schlueter Automotive Group, realized that a new approach was needed to market cars.
"Our customers are changing, and so are their expectations regarding their buying experience and what they expect from a dealership," she explains. "They are tired of automobile advertising yelling at them."
While she did not want to abandon the print and radio advertising that had been working, she realized that the "huge beast of the Web" provided the potential to try new approaches to selling cars.
Schlueter Chevrolet was founded by Ms. Schlueter's grandfather and father in 1976. In the mid-1980s, her grandfather expanded the business, becoming one of the first Acura dealers in Canada, and, in 2006, her father acquired a third dealership, Schlueter Hyundai.
Ms. Schlueter has worked in the family business since high school, starting with summer jobs in the parts department, and is now dealer principal with Schlueter Chevrolet.
The company's location has had an effect on her quest to be innovative. As Ms. Schlueter puts it: "Traditionally, customers would come into a dealership four or five times throughout their buying process. Today customers can do most of their research online, and only need to come into the dealership once or twice before making their decision. We saw this in Waterloo probably earlier than in cities, because, when companies such as RIM and Open Text started to take off, our market suddenly started to fill up with more non-traditional car buyers. These buyers were early adopters of products and technology and lived comfortably in the online world. "
Based on this realization, she started to explore new ways of handling marketing.
Perhaps the most novel element in Ms. Schlueter's new approach to marketing is the Twitter Test Drive. This program allows people to test-drive a new vehicle for a full two days; all the dealership asks is that they tweet about their experience. Those who don't have a Twitter account are interviewed when they return the vehicle and their comments are turned into a blog. In either case, people are free to say whatever they like about the vehicle, positive or negative.
"The Twitter Test Drive is great for our customers and for us," Ms. Schlueter says. "Our customers get more than a quick 10-minute drive around the block. They see how the vehicle fits into their parking space, how their skis fit into it, and how it handles their drive to work. The benefit for us is getting a neutral third-party review from someone in the local community: Someone who says, 'I drove this and it actually got the mileage it says it'll get,' or 'Look at how well my car seat fits in the back of this car.'"
Ms. Schlueter found the Twitter Test Drive a cost-effective way of advertising the Orlando and the Sonic, two new Chevrolet products launched last October. It allowed the company to build trust and strengthen its brand during an economic downturn when money was tight.
A second element of Ms. Schlueter's online strategy was a redesign of the company's website. "The manufacturers spend millions of dollars on their websites providing information about new vehicles, so why would we duplicate that?"
Rather than being an informational dump, she wants the website to become a place where people can have a conversation. Used vehicles and service are highlighted on the site as much as new vehicles.
Her research shows that the used vehicles pages on the site receive a lot of traffic. She also knows that people spend more time maintaining their vehicle than buying it, and so they have implemented some new service-orientated tools that go beyond just booking an appointment. People can now go online to order snow tires, read tips from the service staff and find descriptions of all the warning lights provided in a way that is easy to understand.
Ms. Schlueter's innovative approach to marketing is paying off., leading to cultural changes within the company.
"We are paying more attention to putting the customer at the centre of what we do in the dealership," she says. "After their active participation through Twitter, we don't want them to have an old-world experience when they walk through the door."
Ms. Schlueter has also achieved external recognition. She has been invited to sit on the 12-dealer national marketing board for General Motors Co., and, in 2008, was ranked No. 10 on the annual PROFIT W100 ranking of Canada's top women entrepreneurs.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Becky Reuber is a professor of strategic management in the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Your Business website.
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