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:
-- 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.
-- 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.