As Sonic Automotive Inc. expands its used-vehicle-only EchoPark stores across the U.S., its grass-roots marketing, modeled after Apple Inc., targets future customers when they're young.
"Apple taught us that. They were very smart in putting Apple products in schools so that kids got used to them and used those products in running their lives," said Jeff Dyke, Sonic's executive vice president of operations.
In Denver, where there are five EchoPark stores, Sonic has launched a distracted-driving program for teen drivers. Sonic plans to take that program to its EchoPark stores in Texas and the Carolinas when they are built, Dyke said.
Sonic's marketing team also is working to develop an EchoPark driver's education course through its stores, after which EchoPark hopes to help newly licensed teen drivers secure a down payment on one of its used cars.
"We're getting to their parents, too," said Marti Eulberg, Sonic's director of brand management. "The parents all of a sudden say, "What is EchoPark? You're the ones who put on the distracted-driving programs. You're who I can get driver's education classes through.'"
Sonic, of Charlotte, N.C., opened its first EchoPark store in Denver in the fall of 2014. Eulberg, believing there are better ways to spend marketing dollars than traditional media, quickly made community involvement a priority. EchoPark won naming rights to an athletic stadium in suburban Denver. Now known as EchoPark Automotive Stadium, nine high schools play football, lacrosse and soccer there.
"It was a great way for us to get exposure," Eulberg said. "All the tickets ... say EchoPark, and we advertise on the back of those."
Once each quarter of the year, in the stadium parking lot, EchoPark will host a daylong program to teach teen drivers about distracted driving. The first one, held Aug. 27, was free to the 152 teen drivers who attended. It had a slalom course, an antilock-braking course and classroom education. EchoPark supplied four sedans and one SUV for the event, along with two display vehicles to promote the stores.
"From a marketing perspective, it's money well spent," Eulberg said, while declining to disclose the cost.
"I already see people coming into the EchoPark service lanes that never did before, and I've had people say, "Wow! I didn't know about EchoPark,'" Eulberg said. "This gives you the opportunity to speak to people. It gives us referrals, and a handful of referrals pay for the event."
Sonic will open a sixth EchoPark store, in Colorado Springs, in the first quarter, Dyke said. It starts construction on about a dozen EchoPark stores in Texas next quarter and on about 10 EchoPark stores in the Carolinas in the fourth quarter of next year.
The retailer's next grass-roots marketing effort will be the driver's education courses, Eulberg and Dyke said.
Eulberg is working with states' Department of Motor Vehicle offices and a national insurance organization that develops software to devise the program.
"We'd supply the online software to the kids and the driving instructors," Eulberg said. "We'd work with the school system and pay the teachers and off-duty police officers to be driving instructors."
EchoPark also would supply the cars for the teens to learn on.
Sonic is figuring out the financing of the program but ultimately wants it to be not only free but a step toward the teen driver securing a down payment on a car. Dyke also wants to give discounts on buying a car to students who have a certain grade-point average.
Sonic ranks No. 4 on Automotive News' list of the top 150 U.S.-based dealership groups, with retail sales of 138,129 new vehicles in 2015.