On Wednesday, the familiar AutoWay brand that identifies more than a dozen car dealerships dotting this metro area will disappear. The new brand name? AutoNation. That's the actual name of the Fort Lauderdale-based auto retailer — America's largest — that is now busy swapping out regional brand names in 17 different markets across the country for the single AutoNation brand.
AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson and his team will meet in Tampa on Wednesday morning with company employees to celebrate a brand shift the company had hoped to achieve long ago. The Tampa Bay Times recently spoke with Jackson about the new brand and why the new marketing strategy is happening now.
Why go nationwide with the AutoNation brand now?
It's a big moment for the company. We're in the process of uniting under the flag of AutoNation, coast to coast. We have many local market brand names that have been very successful for 15 years in some markets and up to 80 years in others.
Wasn't the goal long ago to use one brand nationwide?
When I arrived at this company 13 years ago, the ambition was to unite under one brand name. We had a choice to make: to put up a name and over-promise and under-deliver before the brand really stood for something, or to wait and be patient with local brands first. Admittedly, we did not expect it would take 10 years. But it's happened that way and today we are ready.
How far along are you in the rebranding?
We've completed 30 percent, including Texas and South Florida, and the customer reception has been positive.
People here are used to hearing your advertising jingle — "Who you gonna call? AutoWay" — based on the old Ghostbusters movie theme song. What happens now?
We actually use that same jingle in all of our markets and just add a brand name in response, depending on our name in 17 different markets. The jingle will not go away and is part of our marketing strategy to make this transition. So it will be Who you gonna call? AutoNation.
Your timing seems great. Auto sales are on the rise after a rough recession.
Things are rebounding. To have the wind at our back is prudent. It is a risky step. If you look at other retailer experiences like JCPenney, things did not turn out well.
So why now? We see that customers have embraced the digital world as a way to do business. To have one brand put you on top of every search? That is a tremendous advantage.
What about your customers?
While I am a good car salesman from New Jersey, this recovery is about a genuine need to replace vehicles. The average age of a customer car is 11 years with 150,000 miles. They have to do something.
So what will customers find in 2013 dealerships?
They will see 55 new product launches this year compared to only 40 last year. Customers are far more educated than before because they do their homework online before coming in. But they still want to come into the brick-and-mortar stores. They will see big improvements in fuel economy without big tradeoffs in vehicle size or speed. Financing is great and is not an issue as it was in the housing market.
It's still a significant expense for many, yes?
The average vehicle sale is $30,000 and customers want confirmation and affirmation they are getting what they want.
We know fuel economy is improving, but what about gas prices? Is that a wild card ahead?
It's interesting. We're going through that seasonal change in gas from winter to summer blend, which is 15 cents more expensive. Yet gas prices are still going down. People still are not driving as much as they did in 2007, and better fuel economy means less gas. I expect to see $3-a-gallon gas by next fall.