Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Your marketing cheat sheet

March 8, 2011

Please fill in the blank and read aloud:

“Hi, my name is (insert your name here) and I have an advertising problem.”

You’re not alone. Every year, thousands of carwash operators waste thousands of dollars on marketing programs that don’t work. A marketing campaign can fail for several reasons. It might have been the wrong medium. The message may have been poorly constructed. Perhaps you chose the wrong market altogether.

Whatever the reason for failure, Professional Carwashing & Detailing is here to help. We’ve tracked down a few of the best and brightest minds in marketing and advertising to help you create a marketing program with tangible goals in mind. From reader signs that bring in new customers to direct mail campaigns that encourage loyalty, our marketing experts explain how you can use unique and effective tactics to measure the success of your promotion and build others to support it.

Give me a sign
The most basic form of advertising is also one of the most misused. According to Christine McKelvey, marketing operations manager for Stewart Signs, your reader board probably needs some freshening up – and she knows just where you can get some inspiration.

Stewart Signs was founded by a pastor’s son in 1968 to manufacture signs for churches. Eventually, the company expanded into the education marketplace, swiftly followed by contracts for military installations, municipalities, small businesses and now the carwash industry. Today, Stewart Signs has more than 35,000 signs across the country and around the world.

But they’ve never forgotten their roots — and neither should you. A quick drive around town tells you that churches are the poster child for reader board success. While some may blend humor (“Have trouble sleeping? We’ve got sermons, come hear one”), others rely on a cornier approach (“CH _ _ CH. What’s missing? U R”), and still others make a more serious plea (“A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle”).

In fact, try a Google search of “church signs” and you’ll get more than seven million hits, not to mention over 6 million images — most of them pictures of actual church reader boards. Heck, they’ve even got more than a few dedicated websites for ideas, including

Hitting the right note
Although carwash operators might not have a dedicated website to turn to, that shouldn’t stop them from livening up their reader sign. “One of the great advantages of reader boards is the ability to advertise to your most available customer base — those passing right by your business,” McKelvey said. “Because of this a sign is a leading factor in impulse purchases and it is working for you all day, every day.”

As McKelvey pointed out, the U.S. Small Business Administration has said that signs are the most effective, yet least expensive, form of advertising for the small business.

“While all other forms of advertising are temporary and repeated expenses, a sign is permanent and the cost of reaching customers over its lifetime is just pennies,” she explained.

McKelvey stressed that signs should not only blend fun facts, holidays or funny quips, but also strive to put out information that will bring in new customers. This gives customers a reason to turn into your carwash, as well as a way to identify a personality with your brand.

“Updating your sign once a week is the average,” explained McKelvey, “but there is nothing wrong with updating your message every few days if you have more to say or if you feel your current message isn’t pulling enough traffic in from the street.”

According to McKelvey, sign placement should be perpendicular to the road with lettering large enough to be read. Letter size is in direct correlation to the speed of traffic going by — the faster the speed, the larger the letters need to be. If you have more specific questions, McKelvey recommended reaching out to a sign consultant who will be able to determine what letter size is best for your traffic speed and location.

“A lot of factors, such as whether or not you are at an intersection and how many lanes of traffic there are, come into play,” she said.

As for phrases, McKelvey said words like “free” or “sale” are always attention-getters, “but as long as your message speaks to potential customers and familiarizes them with what you do and how you can benefit them, you’re sure to turn heads.”

“The best thing to do is come up with a few ideas and test them out,” she suggested. “Be creative and most of all have fun with it!”

Go direct
After you’ve caught the attention of passers-by, it’s time to get in their homes. Direct mail marketing offers you an opportunity to reach out to your business’s neighbors and make an introduction.

According to Terry Hayes, marketing specialist for Valpak Direct Marketing, Inc., a provider of direct mail services, this marketing medium has been steadily improving over the years.

“Advances in print technology, computerized databases, personalization and micro-targeting techniques have all led to the emergence of one-to-one direct mail marketing,” Hayes explained. “Contemporary business owners know direct mail as a targeted, trackable and inexpensive marketing method that cultivates customers and keeps them coming back.”

As Hayes pointed out, there are several key differences between direct mail marketing and other mediums, such as television or radio.

They are:

• Measurability. It’s difficult at best to measure results with some media, but with direct mail, it’s easy to tell if your advertising is working, Hayes explained. By providing the consumer with a method of responding, such as barcodes or keywords, you can quickly reconcile your costs against your response and determine your return on investment (ROI).

• Precise targeting and market segmentation. Maximize response by putting your advertising message in front of the consumers most likely to respond to it. Targeting by geographics, demographics, consumer behavior and consumer expenditures ensures that you mail to your exact audience rather than waste circulation.

• Benefit-oriented advertising. This is where the old “what’s in it for me” objective comes into play. Direct marketing is the perfect way for you to clearly state the benefit to the consumer. Whether it’s a discount, a free item or a special sale, direct mail gives you plenty of time and space to tell the consumer why they should come to you.

Designing a successful campaign
However, for all its benefits, some operators still get tripped up when designing their direct mail campaign. Hayes suggested operators carefully consider the following aspects of their campaign before signing a contract:

• The package: Appealing design ensures your message is seen.

• The market: Precise targeting allows your message to be seen by the right people.

• The offer: A strong offer motivates people to respond.

• The frequency: Once is never enough.

Hayes admitted that results vary widely from business to business, but said the best campaigns have the ability to bring in plenty of volume. For example, a Los Angeles-area carwash was able to realize 60.3% ROI from a signature Blue Envelope service by Valpak.

The secret is in the discount, Hayes said. “Consumers have emerged from economic downturn with a new mindset,” she explained. “When it comes to spending, they’re proving to be more practical and proactive than in years past. They’re doing more research, comparing prices and actively searching for coupons and savings incentives. Post-recession, 94 percent of consumers report using discounts, according to TNS Retail Forward.”

Choose an online directory
If you haven’t already done so, then now is the time to put down this magazine and head over to your computer to fill out your Google maps profile. Simply search your business in Google, select it out of the search items on the map feature and click the link marked “Business owner?” Then get yourself over to and do the same.

These free listing services allow you to verify your business description, see customer comments, as well as post pictures and additional information about your company. Not only that, but customer feedback on a neutral, third-party site like Google gives you a real opportunity to measure your success and seek out new opportunities.

And if these generic opportunities aren’t cutting it, consider a carwash-specific directory like or In the case of, the directory launched during Car Care World Expo 2010, the company also maintains a Twitter account at which they use to stay in touch with customer’s using their service.

Visiting allows customers to not only see the weather and find a carwash near their home or workplace, but also offers a list of reasons why professional washing your vehicle — and washing it often — is best for your investment.

The directory also offers operators the chance to tailor their listing according to their interests and budget; from a free basic listing all the way up to the Preferred Package which includes a customized directory listing page, unlimited downloadable coupons, the opportunity to sell gift certificates through the website and unlimited pictures and video, among other features.

No matter which directory you choose to go with, the important matter is that you take advantage of these services and market them to your customers. And last but not least, be sure to update your website as well as any listings whenever you have new services or technologies at the carwash. Your customers want to know what’s happening at your business and feel involved with any improvements — don’t leave them out.

Seeing green
When it comes to marketing savvy, the best sign of a forward-thinking operator is one who also incorporates the latest consumer trends. For the carwash industry, this means showing your customers that you’re lean and green.

“Certainly there is a growing market for green products in our overall economy,” explained Marcus McLaughlin, a member of the marketing team at Belanger, Inc., a manufacturer of carwash systems. “The evidence is all around us — the proliferation of supposedly green companies, green products, green marketing and self-professed green consumers.”

But tackling the green trend head-on also presents its own challenges, McLaughlin said. “Operators who are inclined to focus their marketing primarily around the ‘green’ theme face several hurdles,” he explained. “One is that 55 to 60 percent of consumers wrongly believe home washing is better for the environment than using a professional carwash. This is according to the four most recent ICA Consumer Studies, from 1999 to 2008.”

According to McLaughlin, the second obstacle is that a minority of consumers — 17 percent of men and 28 percent of women — said in the 2008 ICA Study that knowing a carwash is safer for the environment would ‘greatly influence’ their choice of wash. “Ironically, it’s probably better for the environment that these percentages aren’t higher, or many of these people might act on their erroneous belief that home washing is environmentally safer,” he pointed out.

McLaughlin said the operator’s best course of action is to remember why the customer is at the carwash — because he wants a clean car and he wants the convenience of a do-it-for-me wash. In other words, it’s very unlikely that your customer showed up because she wanted to help the environment that day.

“Operators who develop their service offerings and promotional messages around the universal desires for quality, speed and convenience will always do well in the market,” McLaughlin explained. “Not only will these operators achieve the wash volumes they need to succeed, they will do the environment a good turn by attracting more home washers out of the driveway and into the wash bay.”

Fighting an uphill battle
Once the operator has established that his carwash offers a quality service in a convenient time frame, he is free to start promoting the green aspects of his business. But there is a difference between successfully marketing carwash services that happen to be ‘green’ (good for the environment), versus successfully marketing carwash services as being ‘green,’ McLaughlin said.

Green marketing, therefore, relies on mediums that allow the operator to present more in-depth information. McLaughlin encouraged eco-friendly operators to use their websites and lobby displays to educate interested consumers. “Operators might also produce ‘take away’ flyers to distribute to customers, who can then read them later should they have the time and inclination to do so,” he explained.

“Ideally, educating consumers about the environmental benefits of professional carwashes could be an industry-wide effort,” McLaughlin proposed. “This would benefit everyone in the industry by increasing the number of folks who convert from ‘mostly’ home washing to ‘mostly’ using professional washes. It would also help ‘future proof’ the industry against further laws, rules and regulations issued by misinformed legislators and other public officials.”