AutoNation calls TrueCar one of its best partners.
Such a statement would have been unheard of just three years ago, when the retail giant had a public falling out with the shopping site over demands for data access that it called "onerous," "unconscionable" and "unacceptable," culminating in a July 2015 divorce.
Within a month, TrueCar founder and CEO Scott Painter resigned and the company was in the throes of another makeover to prove that it could be a potent force in auto retailing without antagonizing the retailers.
This time, it appears to have worked. Under Chip Perry, the former Autotrader executive who succeeded Painter in late 2015, TrueCar is not a different company, but it's a very different brand, casting itself more clearly as the friend of the auto dealer — a conduit for transparent pricing information and marketing efficiency, rather than rock-bottom deals.
The changes have included new ad messaging that was more favorable to dealers and did away with phrases such as "never overpay," language that irked dealers by implying they were inclined to overcharge consumers.
The site also stopped letting consumers anonymously view vehicle pricing without submitting contact information. And it changed its site layout by eliminating the page that listed competing dealerships' prices, while hiring more field reps to help train dealers on how to use the site's tools.
"In the past, [TrueCar] had been tilted significantly in a way that dealers found was harmful to them," Perry told Automotive News. "We were able to find win-win improvements that enabled the site to continue to perform well for consumers while being much more positive for dealers."
In the process, TrueCar gave up some of what made it distinctive in a sea of lead generators: a powerful consumer-facing brand promise, the mantle of disrupter and a knack for seizing on shoppers' traditional distrust toward auto dealers.
Without that posture, its brand often takes second billing to those of its affinity partners, including USAA, Sam's Club, American Express and Chase, which market car-buying services powered by TrueCar's technology and dealer relationships.