Okla. dealer gets in tune with customers
Musician turned retailer taps into local arts scene to promote family's store
Published in Automotive News, Jan. 16, 2012
Jonathan Fowler says his musical talents as a bluegrass guitarist didn't get him past open-mic night. But Fowler's passion for music is helping make a name for his family's new Volkswagen dealership in Norman, Okla.
Less than two years after opening in a shuttered Mitsubishi facility, Fowler Volkswagen makes the most of a shoestring marketing budget by leveraging Fowler's connections in the local music community. In the hip college town, home of the University of Oklahoma, the dealership's support of the burgeoning arts scene resonates with consumers.
"We learned very quickly: If you connect with your consumer on an emotional level in the areas they want to be connected with and don't try to sell them a car while doing it, they'll remember you when it's time to come and buy a car," says Fowler, the store's 29-year-old general manager. "We really try and just keep our name out there in the areas where our customers are going to be on their Saturday and Friday nights."
One notable effort is the Norman Music Festival, a free indie music event that attracted 50,000 people and 180 bands in 2011. Fowler helped found the event in 2008 and talked managers of his family's Toyota and Honda dealerships into becoming headline sponsors.
The Volkswagen store has become a major sponsor since its 2010 opening. Fowler VW constructed elaborate ramps in a children's play area and distributed 1,500 VW-model Hot Wheels affixed to cards promoting a service discount. "We had a lot of [the cards] come back in," Fowler says.
In 2011, Fowler VW tied its display to Passat, Jetta and Beetle models with special-edition Fender audio systems.
Fowler just finished his favorite promotion.
For the second year, the dealership produced a Christmas album featuring local bands playing original music. For $3,500, Fowler VW teams with a local label to make 1,000 vinyl records, which are given away. People must attend a launch party or visit the dealership or another designated business to pick up the record.
But the dealership doesn't try to convert the music fans into immediate customers. They don't have to fill out a form or share personal information. Instead, Fowler has instructed his staff to engage them in conversation: How did they hear about the record? What do they know about the bands?
That soft approach appears to be working.
"I know for a fact that people who have encountered us through this record specifically have bought cars from us," Fowler says. "There's a loyalty in these people who like the things we do. They make an effort to do business with us."
Other arts-minded promotions include:
n Sponsorship of a monthly arts walk event. The dealership gives out cookies in the shape of a VW bus. During the February walk, Fowler VW sets up a "kiss cam" in the back of a 1977 Vanagon.
n That same Vanagon also is home to the VDub Sessions, a video concert series. The recordings, more than 40 so far featuring local artists and touring national acts, are posted on Fowler VW's YouTube channel.
Joining the family business
Fowler's approach was honed working at the other stores in the Fowler Auto Group. His grandfather, Bill Fowler, started selling Buicks in the 1950s and eventually purchased a Toyota store in 1973. Bill Fowler, now 80, still comes to work every day, though Mike Fowler, Bill's son and Jonathan's father, handles day-to-day leadership of the five-store group.
Jonathan Fowler remembers sweeping floors in the service department as young as age 5. He drove the parts trucks when he turned 16. But he wasn't sure he wanted to stay in the family business.
His love for music beckoned. But Fowler says he soon realized that "my passion far exceeded my talent." Not really sure what he wanted to do, he came back to the family business. Within six months, he knew he wanted to make it his career.
By 2009, the family was looking for a store for Fowler to run. At the same time Volkswagen decided to add a second point in metro Oklahoma City. With VW's reputation for fun marketing, it felt like a good fit, Fowler says.
After opening in May 2010, Fowler had free reign over the store's $20,000 monthly marketing budget. He directed most of the money toward grass-roots events such as the music festival -- a $5,000 sponsorship for each Fowler store.
He also created the VDub Club, a keychain card offering discounts at 30 local businesses. Almost 3,000 cards have been distributed so far.
"We have to find ways to get our name in front of people that just don't cost a lot of money but that also have some kind of benefit or emotional attachment," he says. "Norman is a very big shop local community."
Fowler VW's marketing budget now runs up to $55,000 a month, but Fowler is still looking for the most bang for his buck. After realizing a huge percentage of his service customers had their radios tuned to National Public Radio, he switched a large chunk of his radio budget to the local NPR station.
He puts a lot of emphasis on the dealership's Twitter feed and Facebook page. Social media activity spikes during event sponsorships. The store's Twitter feed has 477 followers, compared with 98 for Fowler Toyota and 36 for Fowler Honda.
Where: Norman, Okla.
Monthly sales: 72 new and used in 2011, up from 52 in 2010
Notable: Reached profitability in 2011 after opening in May 2010
Coming up: Fowler plans to build a dealership for an estimated $3.5 million in 2013 or later
Family business: Part of Fowler Auto Group, a 5-store group founded by Jonathan's grandfather, Bill Fowler, in 1973
Music fan: Fowler's background as a bluegrass guitarist and music junkie fuels the VW store's marketing and social media strategies.
Guten tag! Customers like this greeting from Waldi Pitchlynn, Fowler VW's Germany-born receptionist and family friend.
And business is taking off. In 2010, Fowler VW averaged monthly sales of 52 new and used vehicles. In 2011, that jumped to 72 a month. The store was profitable in 2011 after a small loss -- much smaller than budgeted -- in 2010, Fowler says.
He also gives credit to things he has learned from family members. For example, he uses the finance and insurance practices honed by his father at other Fowler stores.
"Everything we do in this store is because of something I learned that I liked or that I didn't like at one of our other stores," he says. "The marketing is a great example of something I didn't like at our other stores."
Those sister stores typically advertised on TV and radio and didn't have much online presence. Now they're learning from the Volkswagen store's experiments.
Says Fowler: "That's starting to change because of what they've seen this store able to accomplish." c
You can reach Amy Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.