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Devout dealer puts his faith in marketing - Automotive News (subscription) (blog) - 19 Sep 2016 14:10

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[[html]]Mark Benson believes marketing should be edgy to be effective. And in his search for an edge, he has found religion. <br><br>A couple of years ago, the managing partner of Honolulu Ford not only decided to keep his store closed on Sundays, but also advertised that fact. Benson said he did it to accommodate churchgoers, give his employees a day off and build goodwill. <br><br>This year, he went a step further, launching a cable-TV channel that offers on-demand religious programming created by local churches. The channel is called John 316, a reference to the Bible verse that many believers consider the gospel "in a nutshell." <br><br>Each program on John 316 carries a message in the beginning and at the end showing Benson and the church's pastor thanking Honolulu Ford for the opportunity to show the program, he said. That fixture often runs in the middle of the program too, he said. <br><br>"Dealers sponsor the local high school, Little League teams and all kinds of things," said Benson. "But when it comes to church or American values, we're all afraid." <br><br>If there's one thing that puts that fear to rest for Benson, it's the numbers. <br><br>Once a laggard in the Honolulu market, the dealership began to see its sales rise in early 2014 after Benson opted to close on Sundays, and escalate further after the launch of John 316. It's now the No. 1 Ford dealership in Hawaii, a Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman confirmed, selling about 1,500 new and used vehicles a year. <br><br>"We've been blessed in sales and profitability because we have been bold," says Benson.<br><br><img src="http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcsi.dll/storyimage/CA/20160918/RETAIL03/309199983/H2/0/H2-309199983.jpg&amp;MaxW=200"/><br><br>Lorenz: "Know your market."<br><br>'A numbers game'<br><br>Some advertising experts commend Benson's willingness to step into a religious forum to get noticed, but caution that the strategy is risky if it's not executed carefully. The marketing must come across as genuine to avoid offending potential customers. It could also alter the customer demographics. <br><br>"We're always pushing our clients to disrupt the status quo," said Cory Lorenz, vice president of media for advertising firm DDC Works in Philadelphia. <br><br>DDC Works does religious marketing for some of its clients, including a Catholic-based hospital. But Lorenz warns, "If you go down that road, you'll alienate a portion of your audience. It's a numbers game." <br><br>And in the case of Benson, Lorenz said, the numbers are on his side. Lorenz cited 2010 research showing that 40 percent of Honolulu residents are affiliated with a religion and regularly attend services. <br><br>"If he got one out of three people in Honolulu to buy a Ford from him, that's pretty successful," Lorenz added. "That's Marketing 101: Know your market." <br><br>Fancy Morales, senior marketing manager for automotive marketing company CardTapp in Bellevue, Wash., echoed that advice. "What Honolulu Ford is doing is working for their network, but I don't think what they're tapping into can be replicated easily," Morales said. "They know their market and its communities." <br><br>Ford itself has no control over Benson's decision to launch John 316 because Ford dealers are "independent businesses" that make their own marketing decisions, the Ford spokeswoman wrote in an email to Automotive News. And Benson said he is not using any co-op advertising funds to pay for it.<br><br><img src="http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcsi.dll/storyimage/CA/20160918/RETAIL03/309199983/H3/0/H3-309199983.jpg&amp;MaxW=450"/><br><br>Benson says his Sunday-closure strategy has resonated with religious customers.<br><br>Big banner<br><br>Benson said his decision to close on Sundays and launch John 316 was a marketing strategy but it also genuinely reflected his beliefs. <br><br>A devout Lutheran, Benson, 54, lived in Utah for a year in 1985. There, he first witnessed the power of religion in marketing. <br><br>"The dealers there didn't run away from embracing the Church of Latter Day Saints, because the church was such a positive influence there," Benson said. <br><br>In the late 1990s, Benson was a Ford dealer in Georgia, where his dealership sponsored many local church events, he said. <br><br>Even so, not everyone thought this was the way to go. Scott Hogle, senior vice president of sales at iHeartMedia in Honolulu and a friend of Benson's, advised him against shutting the dealership on Sundays. He worried Benson would get pressure from Ford and lose sales to other dealers who remained open. <br><br>Benson ignored him. <br><br>"Literally, a week later, a big banner was hung from Honolulu Ford over the freeway that read: "Sunday we rest,'" Hogle recalls. <br><br>Consumers liked it and started buying more cars there, Benson said. <br><br>A move such as closing on Sundays, when competitors are open, allows a dealership's message to "evolve" into family values, said Lorenz. <br><br>"A lot of dealers in our area are always talking deal, deal, deal," said Lorenz. "This opens it up to use Facebook content to talk about family values and being closed on Sunday." <br><br>And, Hogle said, it could be perceived by Honolulu's religious consumers that the dealership is "moved by faith not just finances." <br><br>John 316 is the boldest bet Benson has made on religious marketing. He acknowledges that the venture is no charity, and says he's comfortable using religion to make money. <br><br>"Over the years, I would have felt conflict" doing it, Benson said. "Maybe I've matured to the point where I've sat with religious leaders of the community, and they have rallied behind me. They know my heart and you really can't fake this stuff."<br><br>"Maybe I've matured to the point where I've sat with religious leaders of the community, and they have rallied behind me. They know my heart, and you really can't fake that stuff."<br><br>Mark Benson, managing partner, Honolulu Ford<br><br>He said he paid about $48,000 to buy the channel for 12 months from Oceanic Time Warner Cable Media. The eight churches that supply programming don't have to pay for it to be aired, but they promote John 316 in their bulletins, at weekly services and through social media, Benson said. Seven are Christian churches and one is nondenominational, he said.<br><br>Since the launch of John 316, viewership has steadily grown: Visits to the channel climbed from 50,866 in April to 57,313 in July. (August's total dropped to 48,941, because of a technical problem, Benson said.)<br><br>"We are confident that the social-media campaigns that the churches implemented will see us surpassing 100,000 visits per month by year end," wrote Jaime Kagawa, account executive at Oceanic Time Warner, in a July letter.<br><br>Benson said some consumers visit the store simply to thank him for Honolulu Ford's support of the local church. In one online customer testimonial, a customer said he was brought to the store by God. Some of the fans who stop by end up buying a car or getting service, he said.<br><br>So far Benson said, his customer demographic hasn't changed, and his atheist and Jewish employees and customers are OK with the Christian-oriented channel.<br><br>"We are in an area that virtually no one else wishes to stand," said Benson. "Isn't that the purpose of marketing?"<br><br>[[/html]] - Comments: 0


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