What’s a Co-op Marketing Program Have to Do with My Shop?

By Thomas M. Langer, Jr.
Undercar Digest Business Editor

After all of the years, I should know by now that Jim Wilder never hands out an easy assignment! So, initially I thought that there wasn’t much to say about co-op marketing for auto repair businesses. After all, in all of my many marketing classes they always spoke of co-op as basically getting money as a retailer in turn for including advertising in my ads for a particular manufacturer’s stuff or brands. But, I was very wrong. The more I diagrammed the question and thought about the answers, and talked with shops, it became painfully obvious that there are HUGE co-op opportunities out there to help you more effectively, more economically market your shop and services.

For the rest of this article we’ll be using the concept of cooperative marketing in lieu of co-op. It’s true that there are few opportunities for you to get paid back for advertising in real dollars for just mentioning a manufacturer or brand in your ad, but there are dozens of opportunities for cooperative marketing.

In the form of true co-op dollars there tend to be specific programs for short periods of time. Many of these are offered through your jobber or warehouse, on behalf of companies who manufacture maintenance-type product such as brake friction, shocks, plugs, and so forth. The way these programs work are generally the same:

• You work with your supply contact locally.
• You run an advertisement, while traditionally print, it may be radio or online.
• The advertisement must mention a particular brand, for example, “We offer and install quality shocks by Monroe,” with the advertisement incorporating supplier provided verbiage and/or graphics. Then, as a rule, you have your ad approved by the company in advance. By the way (or btw as my sons tell me), do welcome this step. The large programs and manufacturers employ very smart ad people who will help you. It’s a great way to learn.
• Depending on the program, upon presenting a copy of the advertisement to the manufacturer via your local supplier, you will be reimbursed some predetermined amount for that ad’s cost, generally no more than 50%.

In the truest sense, cooperative advertising tends to be even more creative. For example, the return may not be in dollars for an advertisement but a return of training, signage and other things for identifying with one repair part’s program or another. For example, the NAPA AutoCare, Motorcraft Pro Center, Carquest and Advance Technet and many other programs. There are similar programs at every major parts program and retailer that are similar.

Basically, you agree to signage at your shop and/or using their advertising “slicks” (preprinted ads) along with other identification. In return, these programs provide you with benefits including:

• Financial or other support for advertising that includes their programs
• Discounts, if not provided, signage and other items to identify your shop
• Inclusion in some type of shop directory, typically online, to direct vehicle owners to your shop
• Training
• Discounts on a number of items from handouts for the vehicle owners to in-shop decoration
• Discounts and programs with part specials, tool specials and more
• Often some type of national warranty for your customer’s vehicle relative to the repairs made with the program’s parts
• Access and support for a variety of shop-management tools including estimators and shop management software, often at discount
• Various contests and challenges
• Shop-stocking programs on items such as filters and brake friction at reduced cost or on a consignment basis
Your price for entry is to agree to align with the program in your signage, advertising and other ways you do business. While it really can’t be required, it is generally assumed that you will also give the program and/or brand first call for parts you need. It is typically to your benefit anyway since many of the program benefits are determined by the volume of parts you purchase.

Before launching into one of the programs, there are some things to consider:

• Am I comfortable aligning with one program or brand?
• Are the programs they are offering me adequate, professionally done and readily available as promised? I would talk to other shops in the area also part of the program to get their input.
• Are there a bunch of shops all stacked next to each other with the same program? If so, you’re advertising and listing in any directory may be far less effective.
• How large is the program? Big enough to support a truly national warranty if that is important to you? Big enough that there is a reasonable chance of people finding your shop through their program?
• Do I know the local support team? Is it my current supply house and am I comfortable to stay there for the long haul?
• Am I willing to commit to this program? Remember, nothing kills a brand faster than abandoning the program just about the time it’s successful.

Biggest bit of advice is to talk to others in the program and get a reading on their satisfaction. You have many pieces in this pie from the manufacturers to the supply house and your shop. Better to know the issues that may be big before they show up.

Shops can engage in many other kinds of creative, cost-saving cooperative marketing include.

One way is to align with another shop that offers something you don’t. In my area, one shop advertises with and creates proportional items for their shop that include mention of a local transmission shop as a strategic alliance. In return, the trans shop helps to offset the costs of anything that is jointly created.

A shop may cooperatively market with a non-automotive business. For example, one shop in a market not far from here offers gift cards with completed work to a local meat market for specialty items that shop offers. The meat market provides the gift cards at no cost and has a sign up in the meat shop about the promotion. In return the automotive-repair shop also has a sign displayed about the meat shop and the program. Both shops win. The same type of program would work with a local grocery store, dry cleaner, car wash (one with no oil change, of course), restaurant among other retailers.

One shop in a larger area co-ops with a variety of cultural institutions such as museums. They hold a joint open house at the shop, then one at the museum, splitting the cost of the two events. The repair shop offers specials at both events ranging from inspections to services on new equipment while the museum offers free guided tours and reduced memberships. Near me is a really great auto museum that has done this kind of thing with our businesses a while back. It is especially productive if you have an established relationship with the institution such as a membership, board position, etc.

Sports venues and teams will often work out similar co-op programs with you. One shop in another town offers half-price tickets to a local AAA baseball club, and free tickets for work completed. Again, the team and the shop split the cost. Then, once each season the shop does an open house at the ballpark. Kids meet the players; there are free refreshments (no alcohol) and a game to watch. Teams like AAA or AA baseball, minor league hockey and the like are great to work with, and your customers will likely have a chance to meet some big leaguers since many rehab from injuries in the minor leagues.

While speaking of sports, one shop sponsors an evening at a local stock-car track. They get tickets at no charge to share with key customers, and deals on more for everyone else. The shop pays for the night’s sponsorship (about $800 in this case), gets free or heavily discounted tickets with preferred seating and their name mentioned throughout the night, and a chance to send someone trackside to issue the trophies.

Another shop co-ops with a number of local senior facilities. The facility advertises the programs and shop at no charge to the shop, and the shop puts on free maintenance clinics at the various facilities.
If the facility isn’t loaded with drivers, they do a “hot dog” night for residents and their families.

Now it’s time to start thinking about what may work for you. Some thoughts:

• Target your program given your clientele. Let’s face it; trying to get a group of seniors to attend a stock-car race isn’t likely to be successful. You may have a great time, but you may also be the only one there!
• Do not include alcohol. There has been found to be some legal liability issues with people getting drunk at sponsored parties (including, by the way, employer parties for employees), leaving and getting into an accident. The last thing you need is someone getting stupid at your event. Just say no.
• Stick with generally acceptable co-sponsors and events in your community. While bringing in some acid rock band may sound like fun, it may not be well received. Plan the event or promotion with your community and norms in mind.
• Stay away from sayings or slogans that may border on being suggestive or outright lewd. See the point above.

At this point, write down a description of whom you want to take advantage of your program or event. Then brainstorm all of the possible alternatives and pencil a budget for what appears to be the top three. Finally, appoint someone to actually organize and do the work. Just kidding. If your business is anything like mine was or just about every small business in America, you’ll get stuck with the work. However, it is a great idea to share the load with your co-sponsors, and delegate some areas (for example, cleaning the shop) to staff members.

Co-op advertising is both cost effective and highly efficient if done right. Could be something as simple as joining a program or buying spec’d advertising, or as involved as planning an event or local promotion. It’s your call, and it’s limited only by creativity and some effort.

Thomas M. Langer Jr. has a career spanning a lifetime in the industry and is combining this experience with new information to provide readers of Undercar Digest with information you need to build a better business!