Last month marked the magazine’s ninth annual Industry Summit. I moderated a couple of panels, including one that included executives from five F&I product providers. To prepare for the session, I spoke with each panelist to go over some discussion points. I clearly hit a nerve with one of the execs, a longtime industry veteran.
I was talking to him about what today’s car buyer wants, specifically, their desire for dealers to shorten transaction times. “We’re not letting the customer have fun,” he blurted out. “If you were in the business in the late ’80s, it was entertaining — not real ethical, but we were entertaining people. We were getting them to laugh.”
The executive said the reason time is even an issue today is because we don’t manage customer expectations. Simply telling customers how much of their time you’re going to take, he said, will head off most issues. And we both agreed that dealers would love nothing better than to get customers in and out of the dealership quickly. We also agreed that what stops us from delivering that experience are regulations.
No, I’m not going to talk about compliance this month. I wanted to talk about the executive’s belief that our industry has forgotten how to have fun.
The first thing I thought of when the executive made that statement was legendary dealer Cal Worthington. He passed away on Sept. 8, and with him went another piece of my childhood. His tagline, “Go See Cal,” will forever live in my head. I used to wake up to his commercials when I flipped on the television every morning and when I returned home from school. And I wasn’t the only one who was entertained by his commercials.
I also wasn’t the only kid who misunderstood his jingle. As anyone who grew up with Cal knows, he always had an animal as a sidekick. Sometimes it was a bear, sometimes it was a monkey and sometimes it was a lion. And as anyone over the age of 25 also knows, playing in the background of Cal’s commercials was a quick-paced song styled after “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” with “Go See Cal” in place of “Clap your hands.” But as a young kid who loved the animals he appeared with, I didn’t hear “Go See Cal.” I heard “Pussy Cow.”
And as I discovered, there are blogs, a Facebook page and a YouTube channel dedicated to every kid who made the same mistake. See, what Cal achieved was a marketer’s dream, even if we misunderstood his call to action. And Cal’s face and antics will forever live in the minds of individuals who grew up during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
I never did go see Cal, but, as you’ll read on Page 14, a lot of people did. Is there something we can learn from his high-octane commercials? Some marketing experts aren’t so sure, saying such ads don’t play well with today’s customer. I won’t question their expertise and the data that led them to that conclusion, but I do think there’s something we can all learn from Cal.
See, Cal didn’t have data to tell him that standing on his head while a monkey roller skated across his lot would capture the eyes and hearts of his customers. And from what I’ve read, he used animals in his commercials to spoof his two biggest competitors, Fletcher Jones and Chick Lambert. Can you imagine creating iconic ads as a result of a commercial war?
Where did the fun go, right? See, all Cal needed was a gut feeling. Yes, he did know how to saturate the airwaves, and his ads did lay the foundation for the golden era of offbeat commercials. But there was no science to what he did. He just believed what he was doing was the right thing to do. And I hope we as an industry don’t lose that.
Yes, data can tell you where and how to reach your customers; it can even tell you how effective your ad is. But can it tell you how to cut through the ad clutter and capture your customers’ attention? Well, I’m not sure it can.
Times have definitely changed, and I’m not sure Cal could achieve what he did in today’s 500-channel cable universe. But what he did do well was to be himself. And you know what? Customers still like that.
So, what is the culture at your store? What experience can you deliver? And what have you done at your store that differentiates you from the competition? Once you have those answers, all you need is an iconic catchphrase — and maybe a few stats to tell you where your audience is. Oh, and don’t forget to have fun. Cal did for more than 50 years. If it worked for him, it’ll work for you.