One of the first things W. Harold Wray did when he bought 50 percent of Pulliam Ford in 1991 was embark upon a brand-awareness campaign.
Wray believes that any car dealership that aspires to increase market penetration must devote energy to branding its name as well as its franchise.
'Whether they acknowledge it or not, a dealership's performance is a direct tie to (a dealer's) brand image,' Wray contends. 'It's mandatory. Today, with everything changing so quickly - the market fragmenting into the Internet, manufacturers taking a role in retail and the difficulty of getting customers' attention - if you are going to be on the cutting edge of the competition, marketing your own brand is mandatory.'
Pulliam Ford, a 60-plus-year-old dealership in Columbia, S.C., had concentrated most of its advertising efforts on print and radio before Wray took over. Wray began devoting a majority of his advertising budget to TV and began staying open until midnight, 'branding' the late hours to the dealership's image.
'We think our name today represents a combination of things to the customer,' Wray says. 'We maintain $20 million in new inventory, and we've hammered that fact with TV. That and being open until midnight. We have more than 50 salespeople, and we're doing half our business in the evening.'
The Pulliam-Wray organization also has stressed its secondary financing, promoting itself as a 'buy here, pay here' operation. Wray created a customer assistance program designed specifically for buyers who need secondary financing. Another program caters to young and first-time buyers.
Wray believes one key to positive brand awareness is community involvement. Pulliam-Wray has been a longtime sponsor of education excellence programs, among others.
'We participate in just about everything that comes along and is a good cause,' Wray says. 'That level of involvement costs money, and it's a serious commitment, but it's the kind of thing that ties us to the community.'
Wray believes in a steady stream of advertising - as opposed to intermittent spurts that increase during busy periods and fall off during light periods. 'The staff knows that when traffic is slow, they don't have to worry about us pulling back our advertising,' he says.
He has used polling services to try to gauge the impact of his dealerships' brand awareness, but relies most heavily on exit surveys of customers. 'Inventory and selection is the No. 1 priority for customers,' he says. Pricing is second.'
Several years ago, the company purchased the grocery store next door and converted it into a 40-car indoor showroom. Eight years ago, the secondary finance operation was started. In 1998, Pulliam-Wray added a nearby Volkswagen-Mazda dealership that has remained at its original location.
When Wray entered the business nine years ago, he bought into a company with a 63-year reputation for fair dealing.
'Pulliam Ford always had a good reputation and had a good name in the community,' Wray says. 'It wasn't like we started out in the basement nine years ago.'
Wray says: 'No matter how good a job you do with sales and service, I think if we let advertising wane, we would find a dissipation and erosion of our repeat business immediately. You don't maintain your good name just by doing a great job. You have to keep your name out there.'