Day three of the National Advisory Group conference in Minneapolis kicked off with the first of a pair of general sessions, “Burning Issue #3 – Merchandising and Marketing Your Brand for Success: What are your customers looking for?”
Panel moderator John Schaninger of c-store consultant firm the Schaninger Group welcomed Utah-based brand consultant Ernie Harker, who founded Ernburn Brands, and Mellissa Williams Peterson, merchandising director for Bobby and Steve’s Auto World, which operates eight stores in the Twin Cities area.
Harker bills himself as a brand therapist. With good reason, too. He talked about finding what’s unique and special about an operator’s stores. “I want you to think of branding as the personality of the company,” he said. “It’s really about creating a feeling with your customers and employees.”
Harker said that often stores don’t perform a brand assessment; they’re confused about who they are. This identity crisis results in a lack of direction. An assessment is how you find your way back. “Igniting your brand spark,” said Harker. Those brand attributes have to be defined prior to execution of any marketing efforts.
Where did your name come from? How are you different from your competitors? What makes your stores special? And when you have those answers, place your personality front and center with store décor, which goes so far as even to the aisle endcaps and employee attire.
“Each touch point is reinforcing this whole brand display,” said Harker.
When it comes to those things, Bobby and Steve’s Auto World is ahead of the game. Williams grew up around Bobby and Steve’s. She said that each store is unique in its own way. As was the first store founded by her father, Bobby Williams in Bloomington, Minn., in September of 1996. He named it “Auto World” because it was unique among traditional gas stations and a state-of-the-art facility at the time.
The Minneapolis store near downtown offers groceries and hot food. But it also has six repair bays and towing services. The inside also has the novelty of being decked out like a pop culture museum, with old time advertising signs and auto-themed items peppered throughout the store. The second floor is laid out like a ’50s diner – it even features a classic Chevy Bel Air on a rotating turntable.
WHAT MAKES YOU SPECIAL?
That individuality is the basis of Bobby and Steve’s brand. Every marketing message – radio, digital, social media – reinforces and creates brand awareness. On top of that is a rewards program that drives existing customers back to the store as well as inviting new patrons with irresistible offers. The flexibility of social media, especially, allows the company to be entertaining informative and maintain its name recognition.
Peterson didn’t shy away from the difficulties the company has faced over the years. She gave a frank and honest assessment of Bobby and Steve’s challenges. Yet, her positivity is reflected in the way she talks about her employees whom she calls “enthusiasm engineers.”
“Anybody can be a cashier. How many people can generate enthusiasm?” Peterson asked. “Our towing people are transportation therapists because that’s what they do.”
Peterson said the way to really market is to be a part of the community. That means you have to give back. Bobby and Steve’s started a foundation to help youths in the area. All of the board members are volunteers. It’s raised money for leukemia and lymphoma research, built five playgrounds, donated more than 16,000 books through reading events like Read with Santa and awarded 2,000-plus grants to individual and non-profit organizations.
Those are surefire ways to place a store’s personality front and center, where customers can clearly see what kind of business you’re running – and what a good neighbor your business makes.