How a City Fell in Love With a Used Car Lot

Compassion, disruptive ads and a place to call home

I like stories that feel unbelievable. 

And although I work on global Fortune 500 businesses and brands, this one, though much smaller, is as good as any.

Late winter several years ago, I was walking down a high-altitude mountain path in slushy snow when my phone rang. A distinctive Oklahoma-twanged voice on the other end asked if it was me, said he had seen my site and wanted ideas for his car dealership. 

A used car dealership. 

Called "Guaranteed Auto Credit." (Sir, your SEO strategy is showing.)

But by the time I returned to town, I swear to you everything that was to come later in this story manifested in my mind that afternoon in vivid detail.

I started by meeting all 70-plus employees and asking them who they were until they remembered they were human beings first and foremost. Then explored their deepest fears, loves, desires for their life legacy and what they would do with only two weeks left to live if they had all the money in the world.

No surprise to me, I uncovered a wealth of human passion and goodness unexpressed in their current jobs.

Next, we did a game, moving around the room, "tagging" their competitors' names (tacked on the walls) with "random" words to see which one they would choose to associate with the competition, "our current company" and most of all "our new company in three years." 

The competition got tagged with words like "ambulance," "cancer," "rats," "death," "crime," "vanilla," "death" and "sewer." The current company got tagged with words like "professional," "quality," "service," "solid" and "secure." And the all-important "our new company in three years" got tagged with words like "heaven," "peace," "love," "basket of puppies," "joy," "hugs," etc.

My meeting with the client told him he had so much untapped disruptive potential inside his company. Potential that could change the category, the city and the lives of thousands. He asked for a new name ... which I delivered in 10 minutes.

In three weeks, a new business model, new policies and services, advertising, an internal culture program and more was presented and put into direct action. 

As a buy-here, pay-here car lot attracts people "falling down in life" with money problems, addictions, bad luck, bad decisions, bad friends and more, we made the dealership into a bright oasis of live trees, a fountain, a multimedia library of motivational books and videos, comfy, bright seating and conversation areas, private calling booths, healthy snacks and beverages, a luxurious executive calling booth for customers who had to talk to Collections and a junker car in a steel chainlink cage with a sign that read: "Feel better in 30 whacks or less." 

Yes, employees, customers and the public blew off steam, tension and anger with a sledgehammer and posted videos on social media. We partnered with and had free life coaches, free classes on finances, debt, a dynamic job board, free résumé and interview wardrobe services and much more for all employees and customers.

The employees turned out to be happy huggers, so we launched the official employee shirt that read: "Free hugs. No purchase necessary." And that tactic alone, well, keep reading...

We launched with a new TV campaign with three-minute broadcast TV (yes prime time three minutes) talking about the public as worthy human beings, deserving respect and offering endless chances to improve their lives with our help as we  spoke of the above free services. 

The new name was "The Key: Cars, Loans, Life."

The Key | Cars, Loans, Life

In six months, the landscape changed. They grew from one lot to four. They had churches and other social/community organizations call to partner with them, they had banks offer them low-interest loans to help them expand. And when employees went out in public in their special shirts, people ran up to them crying, cheering, getting selfies taken with them and more.

The commercial brought people to tears, brought legions of curious public to see the revolution and brought thousands of new customers, whose lives were changed for the better—by a used car dealer. The Key employees became a culture of happy, loving supportive people for their customers, and for each other. Department employees who never talked to each other became fast friends and family with each other.

The internal culture brand became the public communications.

A city fell in love with a business and thousands of lives were changed by compassion, disruptive creative advertising and a physical place that the public called home. 

Sadly, it's all gone now, years later ... for reasons not worth talking about. But it was all real once upon a time. 

People became human beings, and a business grew in ways no one ever imagined.

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Paul MacFarlane
Paul MacFarlane is founder of The 1101 Experiment and also serves businesses, brands, agencies and organizations as a strategic consultant and fire starter/kindler.

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