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Advertising War: Insurers Vs. Body Shops

Some repairers are trying to counter insurers’ advertising with advertising of their own. It might seem like a futile effort, but the goal is not to outspend insurers. Instead, it’s to educate consumers on the accident claim process.

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Jason Stahl has 28 years of experience as an editor, and has been editor of BodyShop Business for the past 16 years. He currently is a gold pin member of the Collision Industry Conference. Jason, who hails from Cleveland, Ohio, earned a bachelor of arts degree in English from John Carroll University and started his career in journalism at a weekly newspaper, doing everything from delivering newspapers to selling advertising space to writing articles.

tv commercials (available for viewing at www.c-a-r-a.org) have helped cara educate consumers on the auto accident claims process.When the repeat customer who Rick Finney knew well came in for an estimate, Finney figured he was doing his typical thing, rounding up two or three estimates around town. But this time, the customer surprised him.

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“He said he saw my consumer information commercial on Comcast and now knows he can get his car fixed wherever he wants,” said Finney, who owns Finney Automotive in Cadiz, Ohio. “That was really refreshing.”

The commercial was something he and his organization, Choice Autobody Repair Association (CARA), put together to educate consumers on the automobile accident claims process and prompt them to ask questions so that they can make the most informed decisions possible.

Some collision repairers might wonder how effective these commercials could be when they’re facing off with cavemen, geckos, famous actors and beautiful women constantly telling consumers how much money they could save by switching to ABC Insurance Company or that they can just drop the car off and have everything taken care of or if they take their car to a “certified” shop, they can keep track of repairs online 24/7. Also, consider that the top insurers’ annual advertising budgets are in the hundreds of millions of dollars, while CARA’s last yearly budget was $10,000 to $20,000. But Finney says the goal was never to outspend insurers.

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“The goal was to get the common person like you or me who doesn’t know what their rates are or that they need rental coverage or can’t afford a $1,000 deductible to think,” Finney says.

Seeking a Partner

When Finney formed CARA, he looked at other repair associations in the industry to see how they operated. It appeared to him that some wanted to create their own advertising campaigns as well but never took the next step, primarily due to a lack of funds. So he came up with the unique idea of asking the vendors that members of CARA do business with to support their cause by giving them a 1 percent rebate on all purchases.

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“I told them we’re all trying to do the right thing for consumers, and we need to advertise and promote to reach them so they’re not just watching something on TV and thinking that’s the only thing there is as far as insurance is concerned,” Finney said. “I told them, ‘You support us, and we’ll support you.’”

These vendors pay a one-time fee of $100 for an associate membership. Finney told them if no one bought anything from them, the worst they would be out was $100.

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“But if the people in our association knew they were supporting them and were loyal like they should be, I told them they basically just eliminated a salesperson, because where could you get a salesperson for 1 percent and not pay any benefits?” said Finney.

With that sales pitch, Finney said it was fairly easy to get associate members and a decent advertising budget. As he said, 1 percent may not seem like much, but if several shops are collectively spending $100,000 with a particular vendor, that 1 percent adds up to $1,000.


Humor May Be Key for Body Shop Ads

Chuck Jessen, founder of PreFab Ads, a division of Jessen Productions, knows a little about advertising. A 20-year advertising veteran, he has worked for several world-renowned advertising agencies and operated his own agency prior to launching Jessen. He now produces commercials for body shop owners, having sold them to over 250 independent shops across the U.S. And if there’s one thing you have to do, he says, it’s grab the TV viewer’s attention.

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“A good commercial is one that breaks through the media clutter. There’s so much noise and stuff going on on TV,” Jessen says. “Plus, you’re interrupting people’s programs, so you have to hit it right on the head and reinforce something they already subconsciously believe or get them to think about something in a new way.”

Further complicating the situation is that technology today has made it easier for consumers to skip or disregard commercials, says Jessen. Also, commercials played during the Super Bowl have raised people’s expectations.
“People will root for good commercials,” Jessen says. “You’re going to interrupt their shows, and if  they decide to sit through your commercial instead of zap past you with a DVR recorder, they want you to do a good job.

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“They all watch the Super Bowl commercials and root for commercials that do a good job and make them smile, no matter the message. So I try, in 25 seconds, to make a story and bring it to a point where something happens and the action creates a funny situation or imparts good information.”
Jessen says body shops are clearly at a disadvantage against insurance companies because, with massive advertising budgets, insurers can “do anything and run the concept into the ground and it will work because they’re running it so much.” If you’re going to establish a character like a gecko or a googly-eyed pile of money, Jessen says, you’re going to have to run the advertising consistently for a long time, which adds up to a lot of money. But he’s more of the school of doing “one-offs” versus running the same old thing all the time.

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“Each commercial has to work hard on its own merit to break through and get people to take notice and laugh or whatever,” Jessen says. “There are certain buttons you try to push to try to evoke a reaction from a person. Hallmark, for instance, may go the emotional route. I, however, try to deliver humor.”

Jessen thinks comedy is an effective button to push in the auto body repair arena because consumers’ interest in shops’ services is passive.

“People don’t really care about body shops. They don’t even want to think of using one unless they’ve just walked in from having an accident. In fact, they hope they never need one,” says Jessen. “You have to think of the mentality of the viewer: Why should they want to sit there and pay attention to a body shop spot interrupting their shows when they hope they never need one? It’s sort of like someone advertising coffins – the consumer response is, ‘We’ll probably eventually need one, but please don’t remind me of that.’”

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“Choice” is becoming a more popular message that shops want to get across to consumers, says Jessen. In fact, three of his 13 commercials now relay that consumers have the right to choose their own shop, including one called “Roadkill” that features a lizard with a Bronx accent who gets run over by a truck after telling people, “You gotta get your car fixed where I tell you to!” 

Jessen advises shop owners to find an independent media planner or buyer in their market. He estimates 80 percent of shops “shoot from the hip” and buy media directly, but he believes hiring a professional will be better in the long run.

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“You’ll probably get a better deal because you’ll have a professional negotiating on your behalf, so the expense of hiring them will be made up by the money you save,” he says. 

As far as producing a commercial, there’s nothing wrong with going with a local production team from the cable company, but most shops that do, Jessen says, eventually graduate to a more professional level to increase the commercials’ effectiveness.

“The guys who buy commercials from me have run those locally produced ones for years,” Jessen says. “The camera crew comes out and shoots footage inside the shop and people waving outside the shop, and maybe they even include their dogs and kids. But then they’re ready for something new to break through the clutter. That’s not to say, however, that you couldn’t run both an old-style commercial and a couple new ones in the same medium.”

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Jessen’s final advice is that TV is just one tool in the toolbox, and other mediums should be explored. Also, pulling back on advertising in a recession is probably a bad idea.

“Now is the time to build awareness because media time is cheaper,” he says. “When the recession is over, media costs will go up again, so the guys who advertised during a recession will be several steps ahead of those who didn’t.”

He quotes Ben Franklin: “When business is good, it pays to advertise. When business is bad, you have to advertise.” 

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Wheelin’ and Dealin’

CARA was able to stretch the money further than most thanks to its nonprofit status and the purpose of its advertising. Finney says Comcast cut him a deal because the commercials were considered “consumer awareness” and not self-serving.

“The commercials never say go patronize Finney Automotive or Westfalls Body Shop or whatever,” he says. “They’re not about making money – they’re all about the consumer and doing the right thing.”

To come up with ideas for the commercials, CARA members sat down together and talked about the message insurance companies were sending to consumers. They then discussed what specific message they themselves wanted to convey.

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Comcast produced and edited the seven commercials for CARA, charging only $300 apiece – a far cry from what a non-cable company might charge. The commercials ran in the Ohio Valley area for 30 days at a time, appearing five to seven times a day on different channels and reaching an estimated 200,000 people. A consumer could just as easily see the commercial run at 3 p.m. on, for example, ESPN, as he or she could at 3 a.m. Most of the commercials, however, didn’t run on the most popular channels but rather on Comcast’s consumer awareness channel.

A nice bonus was being featured on “Comcast Newsmakers,” a value of $5,000 that Comcast did for free since CARA’s commercials were purely for the benefit of consumers. According to Finney, it was played on CNN for an entire month several times a day.

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“After that aired, I couldn’t go anywhere, not even the McDonald’s drive-thru, without people telling me I was a celebrity,” Finney says. “Everybody
saw that.”

CARA also tried billboards via Clear Channel in the urban Canton, Ohio, environment for awhile, spending $1,500 per month. Each of the billboards, which were 14 feet by 48 feet, had rotating messages from different advertisers. CARA’s ad featured its logo, its motto (“Your Body Shop is Your Choice”) and its Web address. However, Finney decided to nix the billboard ads.

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“We were monitoring our Web traffic, and based on that, it didn’t seem that we were getting the traffic we had hoped for,” he says.

CARA even looked at radio spots in Canton, but with its belief that it should spend the advertising money where it was raised, it wasn’t a
fair choice, according to Finney. “No one could agree on a station or location.”

CARA even tried advertising in trade magazines briefly but stopped when it realized it wasn’t conveying the right message because of what Finney admits was their lack of advertising know-how and inexperience with that medium.

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Fear Reigns Supreme?

Some shops might think that CARA’s attempt to educate the public was a selfish endeavor, as the commercials only ran in the one particular area most CARA shops are located in, but Finney disagrees.

“We didn’t advertise ourselves,” he said. “We’re trying to help all shops, whether you’re a member or not. It’s about doing the right thing.”
Finney says several shops wanted to join CARA and its ad campaign but ultimately turned down the chance out of fear.

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“They were told by certain insurers that they would kick them off their DRP lists,” he claims. “But we have an obligation to do this. I don’t want to be lumped into where insurers force you to do unethical things. They push you to the edge, but it doesn’t mean you have to do it.”

One commercial features a female consumer who just got in an accident, calls her insurer and says: “The police officer just asked me where I wanted my car towed. I’ve used this shop before, and I trust them. What do you mean I may not be covered?”

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Another says: “Ever been involved in an auto accident? If so, did your insurance company refer you to an auto repair center of their choice? Oftentimes, the insurer will choose the repair shop for you, telling you your claim will not be paid unless you use their preferred shop. CARA was recently formed to make consumers aware of their rights after being involved in an auto accident.

“Many people are told they need more than one estimate or have to get an estimate from a preferred shop then they can get it repaired anywhere they like. This not true. You only need one estimate, and it can be from the auto body shop of your choice.”

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Finney believes that an insurer telling a consumer where he or she can take his or her car is “no different than someone telling you what church you could go to or what grocery store you can buy from.”

Work in Process

Finney believes wholeheartedly that the commercials and pamphlets that CARA prints and provides all member shops to hand out to their customers have been effective.

“We’re not going to butt heads with billions of dollars a year in advertising, but these little commercials and pamphlets have done a tremendous amount of good for consumers,” Finney says. “I’ve had people come in holding the pamphlets and saying, ‘Well, I still think I need to get two estimates.’ I say, ‘Time out. What’s up?’ And they say, ‘Well, I went to school with so-and-so, and he owns a body shop.’ And then I say, ‘Take two pamphlets, go get your car fixed down the road and take him one of these.’”

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Aaron Schulenberg, executive director of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS), also believes that repairer advertising can be effective and that it’s not a waste of time just because it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what insurers do.

“I think the reality is that our industry has missed out on a lot of marketing opportunities for years,” Schulenberg says. “Educating consumers is as critical as connecting with them prior to their need for our services, but we’ve never fully embraced that approach. Where I think we can find real ways to improve is through how we deliver our message. The vast majority of advertising I’ve seen is often very serious and technical, and talks about rights, responsibilities and processes that the average consumer can’t connect with unless he or she is experiencing the issue. Insurers are perhaps some of the greatest marketers of our time, and their highly successful ad campaigns often connect with the consumer in humorous and intriguing ways. I think collision repairers should take note of that and find their own ways to use a similar approach.

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“As far as marketing dollars, our industry will never have the same capital to fund marketing expenditures as the insurance industry, but with today’s spotlight on social media, there are so many opportunities to reach the consumer in affordable ways. Now more than ever is the time to market and educate, simply because of the available resources to help small businesses get their messages across effectively without over-leveraging their marketing funds.”

Finney isn’t ready to say he’s an advertising expert now, but he knows more now than he did when he started. And he and CARA plan on continuing to execute this strategy of educating the consumer.

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“It’s a work in motion,” he says. “You can have the best ideas in the world or think you do, but you always have to fine-tune them, especially when you’re a new association trying to do things differently than others. You have to figure out what works and what doesn’t. We’re probably at the point now where we need to look at an ad agency.”

Finney’s advice to other body shops or associations looking to communicate their own personalized message to the masses?

“Consult a marketing agency because advertising is probably not your specialty,” he says. “The biggest thing is that we need advice outside of our industry. You can’t be ashamed to pass an obligation to someone else. If you have to pay for this marketing info, then that’s what you do.”

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Working Together

Would Finney ever rule out teaming up with other associations for a national ad campaign with more dollars?

“Not at all, because this isn’t the Rick Finney Show or the CARA Show,” he says. “We need to be able to work together for the betterment of the whole industry. Working up the 1 percent deal we did with our associate members, I could have opted not to tell anybody and keep it our secret, but that would be selfish and would defeat everything we’re trying to do.”

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SCRS’s Schulenberg also believes in the possibility of teaming up with other associations to deliver the same message.

“I think that there is much greater consensus growing within the collision repair industry, and we’re in a time where I see more and more state and national associations coming together on issues,” he said. “With that, I think that it’s a possibility that opens doors for larger, more broad-reaching campaigns, and I also think that it allows for greater consistency in the message delivered to the consumer through the collective efforts of many. This is a topic that has been approached by SCRS with some of our affiliates, and as a national association I’m hopeful that we can find an effective way
to deliver the industry’s message through the network of our affiliates and the resources at our disposal.”

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It’s likely few repairers would disagree that more consumer education is needed. But many fear getting involved in an effort such as CARA’s might further hurt their business by alienating insurers. Finney says it’s a legitimate concern but shops must stick up for consumers – and themselves.

“I’ve had shops tell me that an insurer told them as soon as they saw the CARA plaque on their wall or our name on their website, they would drop them. Some members also do not want their names on our website,” Finney said. “But shops have to look in the mirror and figure out who they’re working for. Is it the consumer or the insurer? We have just as strong an obligation to the consumer as the insurer does, and I don’t see why we can’t fix these cars right and get paid for it so everyone is happy.”

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