A Time Capsule of Automotive Aftermarket Marketing
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that I have been in a position to guide manufacturers maneuvering the labyrinth of marketing strategies for more than three decades in the automotive aftermarket, especially since the path to market has shifted over and over during all of that time.
It was enriching to be a difference-maker for companies like K&N Engineering, Rancho, and associations like Performance Warehouse Assoc. (now CAN) while working for the most prominent advertising agency specializing in the aftermarket. Early on I was part of the team to develop a trade campaign for K&N. They were struggling to meet demand and needed a solution to ward off the concerns within distribution channels. Our advertising message showed a line of trucks being loaded with products by numerous employees with the headline: We Know Demand has Doubled and are Working Double Time to Get Your Orders Out. It ran in all the major trade publications, resulting in a major drop in complaints, and a renewed trust that K&N management was aware of the distribution concerns and was responding to the problem.
While I was the Account Executive for Rancho, I helped develop what was called the Rancho Sportsman Sweepstakes. We partnered with Outdoor Life and Field and Stream magazines, PowerNation TV, as well as Triton boats, Ford Motor Company, and professional celebrity fisherman, Bill Dance. Rancho offered an incredible prize of a new Ford truck and a fully loaded Triton fishing boat. Entry forms to the sweepstakes were available at most automotive retailers nationwide. The sweepstakes ran for three months, and when the winner was contacted, a beautiful feel-good story emerged. The winner’s home trailer had burned to the ground the week before and while he loved the truck and boat, he was able to sell them to replace his trailer. It is at times like this that you feel like your job can really touch a person’s life.
After my late husband Randy Martin and I formed Martin & Company, one of the first clients we landed was Rough Country®, a Tennessee-based shock and strut company. The company had recently been purchased by Heckethorn Off-Road. The owner, Michael Heckethorn, advised that he would discontinue the Rough Country brand and only sell the Heckethorn brand, which I rigorously vetoed due to its strong existing brand equity. While managing the account we urged them to sell directly to the consumer, as long as they sold at the same price point as retailers. Ad campaigns featured a horse-drawn stagecoach with the headline – What’s a Shock Absorber? After a period of many years, the brand grew in demand to the point that Michael was able to sell the company for the price he demanded.
Another early account at Martin & Company was Aeromotive Engineering. I had worked with the owner years before with a company called Essex Performance which had supplied products for the aerospace industry. With contracts drying up due to industry cutbacks, Dick Cheney suggested they branch out into the automotive aftermarket. The agency I worked for at the time landed that account, and we teamed with celebrated engineer John Lingenfelter as a spokesperson. I developed and coordinated what I believe to be the greatest PR accomplishment of my career by holding a press conference for all the automotive media at the USAF Plant 42, the first B2 Bomber facility located in Palmdale CA, which up until the conference had never allowed consumers on the property. Every media representative that was invited came out, and it put the company on the map. Years later when Aeromotive was formed the owner contacted me and we began to successfully build their brand to the point that years later, the owner sold it at a terrific profit.
Several years later we landed the Cherry Bomb account, and not too long after that the company was purchased by the owner of IMCO who wanted to revitalize the brand. He gave us a $1M budget, and we were able to utilize that budget to absolutely do just that in a huge way. Full-page print ads that won awards showed a crop circle field with a barn in the corner and a yellow classic car peeking out of it. Within the crop circle, the Cherry Bomb logo was embossed into the crops, with a headline that simply read: We’re Back. The campaign was supplemented with TV advertising, event sponsorships, and a partnership with MOPAR to unveil the Cherry Bomb/MOPAR-themed Dodge Charger at an epic SEMA Press Conference that is still talked about today. The MOPAR marketing manager drove the Charger into the ballroom to a standing ovation. Every attendee received a Cherry Bomb garage jacket, a terrific 50s / 60s rock band played, there were plentiful appetizers and drinks, and the press stories continued for weeks to build the brand. The Cherry Bomb marketing manager coined the phrase, “Cherry Bomb, Disturbing the Peace Since 1968. That slogan became the theme for all marketing efforts thereafter.
In 2007 we landed MAHLE Motorsport, the performance North American division for MAHLE Global. Because no one knew how to pronounce this German name and racers and teams were suspect of anything not distinctly American, our first ad campaign helped ease the transition to using a quality product made in the USA with technology sourced from a now 100-year-old German-based company. The headline for the campaign was Good Golly, It’s MAHLE. Admittedly, this Americanized the name but it did give a catchy phrase that made people remember the name and the ad.
Another success story revolves around a company that had incredible new technology for a product that is often thought of as a commodity product. As our clients are mostly in the performance realm, we were tasked with helping technicians and builders understand why they should switch from an OE brand to a vehicle or one they have always used to a spark plug design that offered improved combustion. We helped launch the E3 Spark Plug business by building a marketing strategy that built their brand by teaming with Lucas Oil to become a sponsor of the off-road truck series which provided hundreds of TV spots and on-site exposure. This led to increased demand that helped land E3 in most automotive retailers nationwide. Later they became the official spark plug of NHRA and from that continued to increase sales.
In 2017 we landed a new account, Lubrication Specialties, manufacturer of Hot Shot’s Secret after giving a marketing talk through PRI’s education program. I feel like we have made a significant difference in a relatively short time as this is now the fastest-growing performance lubricant brand in the USA. The VP had attended a seminar at the PRI show my team conducted and he called the next week asking if we could fly out and meet with them. After hiring us, we suggested they sponsor an automotive event series that is diesel-related as their diesel additives were the source of their primary sales. Through their interaction with the diesel race community, they teamed them with the nation’s most recognized diesel engine builder, Lavon Miller, owner of Firepunk Diesel. Firepunk Diesel is greatly respected in the diesel community and after seeing how their diesel fuel additive performed on Lavon’s own dyno with his race truck and daily driver, switched promoting a behemoth brand we all know to endorse Hot Shot’s Secret. Just this past year, the founder and owner sold the company to another private company in the lubricant business, and is continuing to grow.
Whether the company was small, medium-sized, or global, this has been a very rewarding experience that I would not trade for the world. The people and experiences and a sense of family in the aftermarket have been and will continue to be what inspires me and this agency. Having had the honor of serving on numerous SEMA councils and committees, chairing the SBN, and serving on the Board of Directors helped me to grow as an industry professional as well as in my personal life, having developed lifelong mentors and friends.