Car Rental Marketing 3.0

A customer who takes a photo of an experience that was facilitated by your company and posts it to social media is more impactful — and cheaper — than a traditional marketing channel. Photo via iStockphoto.com/SKYNESHER 
A customer who takes a photo of an experience that was facilitated by your company and posts it to social media is more impactful — and cheaper — than a traditional marketing channel. Photo via iStockphoto.com/SKYNESHER

Silvercar — the Austin-based startup that only rents silver Audi A4s and uses technology to dispense with paperwork and rental counters — is at heart, a small, independent car rental company. As such, Silvercar’s marketing strategies are a mix of cutting edge and tried and true.

Silvercar’s marketing guru Russ Lemmer shares the company’s marketing philosophy and strategies, which should help other independents looking to stand apart in a crowded marketplace.

Social media builds brand awareness, not transactions.

“Right now, per dollar spent we get more leverage out of social,” Lemmer says, with the caveat that social media doesn’t directly deliver transactions, at least for car rental. “Unlike Netflix, you can’t click a link and immediately consume whatever deal I’m trying to offer you.”

When it comes to social media, “the trick is to stay relevant and engaging, without continuing to just say, ‘hey, we’re new car rental,’ and fatiguing the eyeballs,” Lemmer says.

Give them content and keep it fresh.

Regarding social media, “the single greatest thing you can do is serve up content,” Lemmer says.

Silvercar has posted on Facebook regarding favorite movie car chases, best car-related video games or coolest drives within two hours of San Francisco. “With that, we get comments, shares and likes,” Lemmer says. “While those don’t necessarily perpetuate transaction growth, they build awareness.”

Promote your lifestyle.

Social media is also about associating your brand with a customer base that aligns to your lifestyle. “Car rental is one of those things that is hard to get jazzed about,” Lemmer admits, so that’s why Silvercar is positioning itself as a lifestyle brand, with social media as the platform.

Inherent in this initiative is Silvercar’s partnership with Virgin America, another lifestyle brand, which allows Virgin America’s frequent flyer members to earn points on Silvercar rentals. “They’re pioneering an in-air experience that we’re trying to do on the ground,” he says, adding that one Silvercar mention in a Virgin email results in a spike in Web traffic and new memberships.

Define precisely your customer segments.

To begin to understand customers, you need to know their buying preferences and how they found out about you. Simple user surveys can help. “We ask the users; they’re the best source of information,” Lemmer says.

Through a survey, Silvercar finds out if you’re a first-time user and how you found the company: from a friend, social media, an online article, an online ad, partnerships with Virgin America or Audi, or a referral network.

After collecting and collating basic customer information, you can use surveys to market to “cohort” groups, or defined demographic subsets, such as the customer who is “male, late 30s, loves sports, travels 10 times a year for leisure and 15 times for business and prefers these particular brands.”

With this level of detail, you can then customize new messages to see what they respond to. “You’re cracking that next level of personalization,” Lemmer says.

As well, Silvercar uses a Facebook tool called Website Custom Audiences, which allows advertisers to create Facebook ads that target users who have previously visited the advertisers’ websites.

These criteria — based on how users interacted with Silvercar.com — are collected in a “pixel” that is dropped in the users’ Internet browsers. When users return to Facebook, they will see an ad tailored to their preferences.

“You get far more relevant ads per user; it becomes a much more personal experience,” Lemmer says.

Make a game out of it.

“Gamification,” marketing’s new favorite buzzword, is essentially the concept of applying game mechanics to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging. “People love contests,” Lemmer says. “Whatever carrot is on that stick, we as human beings are inclined to chase that carrot.”

In car rental, it could mean giving a four-day car rental to the user who refers the most potential customers. Internally, Lemmer could incentivize local operating managers to turn satisfied customers into positive Yelp reviews, with a reward being a pizza party or gift cards for the team.

Surprise and delight.

In this category, Lemmer brings up an ingenious marketing campaign from behemoth ride-sharing company Uber, which partnered with Paramount Studios on the new “Transformers” movie. In select cities, lucky Uber passengers could select “Optimus Prime” as their ride. A tricked-out monster truck showed up to pick them up.

(To a lesser extent, Hertz used “surprise and delight” when it offered surprise upgrades to its Dream Cars fleet of Ferraris and Porsches this summer.)

“The real power of marketing is not just me convincing you of something, but me surprising you and delighting you,” Lemmer says. “And when you do that, your customer becomes your best salesperson.”

Your customers are your best advocates.

Referencing Malcolm Gladwell, Lemmer says your most powerful salespeople are your customers having a great time with your product and then telling other people. “It’s a much more leveraged marketing dollar than me shelling out money for specific ad buy.”

Users who love the product or service will want to talk about it, and a contest on social media becomes the catalyst to broadcast to more people. “That’s where you really start to see your leveraged dollar,” Lemmer says.
“Incentivizing a customer to post and share [on social media sites] is very valuable to us,” Lemmer says.

“Our marketing department in Austin is two people, yet we have people in Silvercars doing far more interesting things than I could create an advertisement about. I’d much rather have them embrace the brand and post their experience to their own network, because it’s so much more validating than an old-school advertisement.”

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