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Would you like fries with that carwash?

October 11, 2010
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Several weeks ago, I was stopped dead in my tracks during a conversation with an investor about the potential impact to the carwash industry from the presence of a carwash chain that was large enough to actually achieve a brand and image with national recognition.

The investor stated, “What can I possibly get from a national carwash chain that I can’t get from an independent carwash operator in any local market across the U.S.?

Creating a brand
The classical definition of a brand is a trademark, distinctive name or logo that identifies a product or manufacturer and differentiates them from the goods and services of the competition.

Brands can be established with:

  • Aesthetic style;
  • Advertising;
  • Narratives; and
  • By creating a reasonable value for which consumers are willing to pay a reasonable price.

By using these techniques, companies are usually able to obtain public acceptance, extensive distribution and, hopefully, higher prices for their products and services.

A brand is a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer. A brand is a promise of delivering a pledge of satisfaction and quality. A “brand” is what consumers tell other consumers about.

The carwash experience
As such, today’s brands are usually built through the experience that the product or service offers.

Starbucks is a good example of a successful modern brand, because it has a large and loyal following and the company makes a pretty profit for a cup of java.

So, is it possible to build a Starbucks’ type of customer experience at the national level with a carwash service?

Is it essential?
First of all, a carwash is not an essential product or service. Although there are some exceptions, people in many parts of the country could go a long time if they had to between carwashes without any meaningful detriment to the mechanical integrity or operational performance of their vehicles.

Arguably, there are relatively few emergency situations that demand a carwash.

A carwash is not a commodity like food, gasoline or water that people need to consume every day.

It also is not a specialty product or service like tires, brakes or lubrication, of which many folks no longer have the inclination, the technical skills or the necessary equipment and tools to do the work themselves.

And finally, the perceived critical mass of 700 to 1,000 sites has not led to the creation of a carwash brand with national prominence.

For example, Mobil/Exxon has thousands of carwashes scattered across the U.S., but how many people do you know that have told you about their carwash experience at Mobil/Exxon?

The only carwash brands that have achieved some widespread recognition with consumers are those that have been established at the regional level like Mike’s Express Carwash, Auto Bell, Danny’s and others.

Bringing washing to the next level
Why have these carwash companies succeeded in creating a meaningful brand while others have not? First of all, establishing a credible brand at any level is a difficult task for any business.

In order to succeed, customer service and production quality must be laid out and effectively communicated to employees.

In turn, employees must become active advocates who promote and demonstrate the brand’s promise.

If the company and its employees deliver on the promise, customers will usually take ownership of the brand.

In addition to keeping their promise for customer service and production quality, Mike’s has used visual style, clear and consistent advertising messages and telling a story to help establish their brand and create value for the customer.

Will Mike’s or another regional carwash company be able to extend their brand to the national level?

One can make the argument that any future attempt to create a national carwash brand from within the carwash industry will have more to do with the opportunity to build personal and shareholder wealth than it will with the needs of consumers.

Robert Roman is a former carwash, express lube and detail shop operator and is president of RJR Enterprises (, a leading consultant to the carwash industry. Robert is a member of the International Carwash Association and PC&D’s Honorary Advisory Board.

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