About five years ago, the Darling's dealership group in Maine dispatched a photographer to a Toby Keith concert to coax showgoers into having their photos taken next to a company banner.
The low-key promotion was a relative success for Bangor-based Darling's, which sells vehicles from Chevrolet, Nissan, Honda, Jeep and Audi and nine other brands across six dealerships in Maine. Hundreds of people agreed to provide their email addresses in exchange for the promise of a free concert photo. That led to a contest that awarded $100 Visa gift cards to the most "liked" photos on Darling's Facebook pages.
The next year, Darling's marketers decided to expand the idea. Staffers built two large photo booths for use at concerts and other events. A few service technicians with carpentry skills helped to build the boxes. Tech-savvy employees equipped each with a camera and other digital gadgetry. The marketing team emblazoned each with Darling's logo and sample photos.
Today, the booths are hauled to events all over southeast Maine, from marathons and Halloween parties to high school gatherings. More than 15,000 prospective customers have happily turned over their email addresses and logged on to Darling's dealership Facebook sites to see their photos.
In many cases, the photo booth has replaced Darling's traditional event marketing approach. Local event planners sometimes simply ask the group to send a photo booth, rather than asking for a couple grand in sponsorship money.
"In the past, they'd send us a list of sponsorship tiers and say 'Pick one,' and we'd end up with a logo on a Web site," says Matt Smith, Darling's marketing director. "Now they all want the booth. It makes the event special and memorable for everybody."
The success has emboldened the 112-year-old dealership group to direct more of its marketing dollars to community events. Today, about half its budget goes to event marketing.
"We've seen the value of being out in the community and talking to people," Smith says.
The investment in the do-it-yourself booths is nominal -- they cost about $2,000 each to build. But there are logistical challenges to placing them at six to eight events each month. Typically, dealership employees host the booths for the day, after hauling them to the site on a large trailer. When employees aren't available, Darling's recruits temporary workers to operate the booths, mindful that they will represent the company for the day.
As with most marketing, it's tough to peg a return on investment, Smith says. Sure, many of its stores boast thousands of Facebook "likes," for whatever that's worth. And its database is populated with many thousands more email addresses of prospective customers than it would have had otherwise.
But the best measure, Smith says, is the feedback he gets from salespeople at the dealerships. They would like to see Darling's do more photo-booth events because of the good will they foster.
"Customers come in and it's like they already know us," he says. "They'll say, 'Oh, I was in your photo booth at the Van Halen concert last month.'"
The approach has spawned another creative grass-roots marketing idea: a Darling's ice cream truck, built by service techs from an old Army surplus van. The truck shows up at charity events by request and gives out free ice cream, with any contributions going to the event's cause. It has raised more than $50,000 this summer.