Stories From The Field: Charity And ROI Are Not Mutually Exclusive

by Bruno Lucarelli

Auto dealers are some of the largest retailers in communities across America and, as local businesses, they are expected to participate in community events. While nearly every dealer does, their efforts aren’t always recognized. Many dealers don’t recognize the opportunities available in sponsorships and instead view them as a kind of necessary hassle. Instead, they should be at the core of every dealer’s marketing efforts.

It’s More Than a Collection of Plaques

It would be difficult to find a dealer that doesn’t have multiple plaques and awards on the walls of their showroom, service area and offices. There may be newspaper clippings, and letters or drawings from children thanking them for donating and sponsoring various worthy organizations and events. While this is a good start, dealers need to go further with these community accolades, especially in an era of digital communications and social media.

The question becomes, how do dealers maximize these opportunities to turn them into increased sales traffic and community goodwill? Here are some suggestions for leveraging the incredible value sponsorship offers.

Don’t be afraid of conquest. Not every event or charity has to be in your own backyard. Of course, you’re going to sponsor your kid’s Little League team. Think bigger; all’s fair in marketing competition! Don’t be afraid to engage in a little conquest and move into the territory of a competitor dealership. Many vehicle shoppers, particularly those in younger generations, value philanthropy, and some car shoppers will pass several dealers to find one aligned with their own values. A live, well-attended charity event in another store’s PMA is a great way to let buyers know who and where you are, what you stand for and how much fun it is to do business with your staff.     

Define your demographics. Before you spend money on a charitable event or sponsorship, take some time to define your potential customer demographics and determine if the event is a good fit. Is the charity or event serving your most common customers?

If I’m a Subaru dealer, I’m automatically thinking outdoor events like races, walks, “Tough Mudder” or “Polar Plunge”. I also might find it appropriate to sponsor Gay Pride events or dog agility competitions, as Subaru has invested in marketing to gay consumers and dog owners. Ford spends more than most car brands marketing in African-American and Hispanic media, so as a Ford dealer, it would be worth it for me to focus on charity events to those national marketing campaigns for maximum effect. The goal is to make the brand’s national marketing strategy work for the store.

Become savvy about digital media. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by digital media, but it’s a critical tool in charity. Don’t be tempted to just write a check to anyone who claims to be a digital media expert. Inform yourself of your options, the potential return and learn to ask the right questions of possible charity partners. This might include social media postings promoting your participation (including links to your website) before and after the events, as well as additional (and permanent) links on the charity’s website. Get the specifics in writing and make your expectations clear.  There are lots of digital media opportunities in local youth sports, and these links will increase and enhance your Google ranking.

Will there be paid and unpaid digital ads promoting the event? If so, make sure your logo figures prominently in all these ads. Logo exposure is offered in every sponsor package, so be sure you get every bit that was promised.  

Don’t forget traditional media. Most charity events have one or more media partners in radio, newspaper, cable or other media. If you are a title sponsor, negotiate a mention of your store in every ad. Ask for the proposed media schedule for the free spots and ads, and coordinate it with your own advertising. Ask for permission to use the non-profit’s logo in your advertising, provided they approve the format. Most charities welcome the chance for this type of exposure and will probably agree if you’re supporting one or more of their annual events. If there are deadlines for your marketing materials, don’t miss them! You want to be on every poster, flyer and banner. Keep a file handy with your most updated, OEM-approved, high-resolution logos and images for quick turnaround.

Extend the opportunity. Take ownership of the sponsored cause and offer to donate a reasonable amount to the charity for every car sold in the month of the event. I know a store that donates $100 from every car sold in the month of April to a local Children’s Hospital. What a different experience for a prospect to come to a car dealer home page and see scenes from this wonderful organization featured rather than $99 lease deals! This allows you to co-opt the charity’s cause in the interest of doing more business and remind the community of your philanthropy. Finally, be sure to bring a camera when you’re presenting the check. This allows you to leverage months’ worth of positive public relations around one promotion.

Sponsor exclusivity. This is an important consideration. I’ve seen some larger events that create a kind of “Dealer Row” in ads with multiple highline, domestic and imported stores. Be clear with organizers about your desire to be the ONLY dealer in your category. If you’re selling VWs, don’t worry about the Mercedes store, but think twice about sharing the public relations with a Toyota store. If you have to pay a little more, or make a longer commitment, it’s worth it to shut out the competition and own the event. The 2019 Cox Automotive Car Buyer Journey Study found that over one-third of buyers visit only ONE store before their purchase. If you’re seen as the “good guy” dealer, maybe that store will be yours.

Photo ops. While few people want to give up their precious weekends, it’s critical that the general manager or dealer principal make an appearance. Be sure there’s a photographer or someone with a good, high-resolution camera to document your participation. Take photos of dealer principals shaking hands with organizers, standing with charity recipients or engaging in fun activities like a dunk tank. These photos can then be used in your social media and on the front page of your website for at least a week following the event.  Putting a human face on your dealership will help prospects become more comfortable with you.

Bring vehicles, premiums and salespeople. According to some studies, about eight percent of the overall population are in the “consideration phase” of purchasing a new vehicle. If you sponsor an event with 3,000 attendees, for example, over 250 active shoppers will pass by your booth. So while bringing cars, premiums and salespeople to an event costs more, it’s worth it if it’s done correctly. You’re guaranteed exposure of your inventory and staff to literally hundreds of active shoppers.

Resist the temptation to hire an outside agency to put models next to a car and collect email addresses. It’s typically a waste of money and devalues your brand. What’s worse is dropping a car off, locking it up for the day, putting up a sandwich board with dealer logo and coming back when the event’s done. (Picture your vehicle and logo unattended, doused in beer, soda and snack wrappers.) Ensure you have at least two cars onsite, allow people to sit in them and have salespeople there to engage them.

It may be your first instinct to bring your most popular models, but I’ve seen more interest from passersby at public events when a dealer brings a new and unique vehicle as their second display car.  For example, one VW Dealer brought a GTI with custom, tartan plaid seats, and event attendees talked about it all day. In fact, one woman who sat in the car for a few minutes returned with her husband, who asked them to reserve the vehicle for them. They drove off in it the following Monday! While you should certainly bring one of your top-selling models, have some fun with your other vehicle. It shows off the character of your brand, even if most people don’t buy the custom cars.  

Engage in active promotions.  There are several ways to interact with attendees that could lead to sales. At one large event, I encouraged a dealer to give away a special premium if any festival goers posted a selfie with the vehicles and staff! Others have done a “What’s Your Car Worth” promotion using a tablet and KBB to give a customer an approximate value of their current vehicle. This is another reason it’s important to have salespeople present. A good salesperson can turn lead gathering and appointment setting into a fun process.  At charity events, I’ve heard many people say, “I can’t believe I just had so much fun with a bunch of car salesmen!” It’s a great way to humanize your store.

Take advantage of the event setting. I had a client that was sponsoring a local music venue, and I realized the sun would be setting behind the stage for every show. I suggested they give away logoed sunglasses. Alcohol was served at these shows, so we used the same color and logo scheme for inexpensive drink koozies. It was quite a sight: 2,000 concertgoers raising their koozies, wearing the shades and dancing to the music. Following the event, sales increased at the store. Premiums like these have long-term value and keep your brand “top of mind” for months to come.  

Time spent finding the right non-profit to support and event to sponsor will pay off. Managed properly, charity events can expose your store to thousands of car shoppers, set appointments for test drives and gain new customers. Every charity dollar you spend should be considered a marketing dollar. If both parties benefit, it’s the start of a long, mutually beneficial relationship.

Bruno Lucarelli is co-founder of MSS Auto, owners of the Vin-UP Service Lane Cash Offer Coupon Program. He is the former head of advertising sales for eBay Motors, and is a veteran of Autotrader, Edmunds and CBS-TV.