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Marketing Your Dealership

Dealers have far more power, influence and capabilities than we think we have. To tap into that power, step out of the traditional mindset and take risks.

Hanging on the wall at MasterLift is a framed quotation: “If you can, be first. If you can’t be first, create a new category in which you can be first.”

It was a seemingly logical marketing idiom, but we struggled with it for two years. How do we create a new category in which we can be first in the forklift industry? Then, faced with a dissatisfactory OEM relationship, we decided to go our separate way and attempt to create our own brand. We would create a MasterLift forklift.

After partnering with one of the top 20 forklift manufacturers in China, we were challenged with branding our new identity. Trying to adhere to the three marketing principles of being first, distinct and finding a concept that evokes positive emotion, we decided to part from the typical forklift messages directed to the purchaser for being “most reliable,” “most rugged” or “most productive.” Instead, our message would be directed to an influencer—the forklift operator—and the message would be that this is a hot, even sexy, ride. Unheard of I know, but to us it seemed the logical path.

Why Target the Operator?
Without question, it is rare for the operator to requisition or initiate the purchase of a forklift truck. But, we concluded, too many forklift sales had been determined by the reaction of the operator at the point of the demo. Too often a deal that we thought was in the bank when representing our former OEM supplier came apart as the operator reacted negatively to, for example, the less-than-impressive color of the truck. Sure, he or she didn’t come out and say it was the color, but it was a consistent reaction. We all know that it’s not uncommon for operators to fight over the forklift they drive. We followed this logic to create a truck the operators would really enjoy.

A MasterLift brand forklift with customized paint and rims
A MasterLift brand forklift with customized paint and rims

To do this, we added flames, custom rims and shifters, and even chrome-tipped dual exhaust to the list of standard features. This is a forklift that operators would look forward to going to work and operating, we reasoned. Not only that, we believed the operator would stay on the truck longer (being more productive) and would take better care of the truck (lower maintenance cost and a potentially safer truck). The challenge now was to determine how to articulate those concepts in the marketplace and sell our new brand of forklift.

Marketing the Brand
After spending a full day locked in a hotel meeting room, we developed a strategy. The strategy looked very much like a funnel. At the top of the funnel, we envisioned our first step to announce our campaign to as much of our audience as possible. This would consist of slightly provocative billboard and newspaper ads. These media pieces would capture the attention of our audience and direct them to a new Web site specifically designed to create a forklift operator community. The new Web site, www.pimpmylift.ca, was designed to allow the user to have fun customizing and posting their own forklifts, which are then rated by other users to win prizes. While at the site, the user can link to the MasterLift Web site (www.MasterLift.com) and window-shop for actual customized forklifts or enter other contests that we run regularly. Creating awareness for our brand in a new, unique and eye-catching way was our objective. Of course, at the bottom of the funnel was the actual forklift sale. Only this time, it would be our brand.

The first newspaper ad ran in April 2007, and the billboards ran simultaneously. In addition, a press release was issued to the media announcing the new MasterLift brand and the Web campaign. We waited anxiously at our desks and by the phone and watched our Web site activity that morning to see if we were incredibly misguided or perhaps on to something.

What happened next was far beyond our wildest imagination. The site received thousands of unique hits daily, and not just locally. The hits came around the world from countries as exotic as Estonia and Ghana. The next few days the media took notice, from marketing magazines to radio interviews, newspaper articles and even national television coverage on the evening news. But it didn’t end there.

The strange and exciting phenomenon continued as we were approached by marketing companies looking for cool forklift images for cell phones and forklift ring tones. Requests started coming in for t-shirts and hats, and soon we began selling pimpmylift.ca gear on the site. In fact, the online store continues to sell more PML wear to females than to males.

The Hits Keep Coming
MasterLift’s story got even stranger when an award-winning Canadian hip-hop star asked to feature customized forklifts on stage for his latest tour schedule. When asked, he and his agent commented that they identified the customized MasterLift forklift with something new and cool and thought his audience would as well. Imagine, turntables resting on the forks of one of our own MasterLift-branded forklifts traveling across the country. Bizarre!

But not as bizarre as what happened next. As a result of the advertising campaign and the media coverage, we were approached by a well-known production company wanting to create a television series about customizing forklifts revolving around our dealership. The new series, entitled Forked Up, was recently pitched at the World Television Festival in Banff, Alberta, Canada, and is currently being discussed with various networks, in- cluding MTV, A&E, Discovery and UKTV. (A sneak peek of the series can be viewed at www.forkedup.com.

Custom mast control levers are one of myriad options on MasterLift brand lift trucks.
Custom mast control levers are one of myriad options on MasterLift brand lift trucks.

While the commissioning editors of these networks all loved the concept of customizing forklift trucks and the never-before-seen “sexy factor,” they were also struck by the facts. For example, 52 percent of the North American working public work around forklift trucks in factories or warehouses. Include those of us in the forklift industry, and there’s a potential TV audience of over 150,000,000 viewers. This number doesn’t include arenas, grocery and furniture stores or the military. Nor does it include the “hidden” audience of white-collar workers who used to drive a forklift for a summer job. To put this audience into better perspective, the successful series Orange County Choppers, a show about customizing motorcycles, has a viewership of approximately 4,000,000.

The bottom of that marketing campaign “funnel” was to sell more lift trucks. We have numerous anecdotal stories of brand awareness, and our forklift sales have definitely improved. Within the first four months of our campaign, we sold 20 MasterLift brand forklifts to companies that likely would not have purchased without our marketing initiatives. Since then, in a slower economic environment, our MasterLift brand sales have been steady. The brand is taking its place and is becoming recognizable. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear that a purchaser “used to have a MasterLift back in the ’80’s!” Of course, this is impossible; we just accept the comment and say, “It was an earlier model.”

The Lessons
What have we learned from this experience? Mostly that the answers are all out there, and that we, a simple dealer, have far more power, influence and capabilities than we think we have. In order to tap into that power, dealers must step out of their traditional mindsets and take risks. At first, we resisted our own ideas and concepts, thinking that we were breaking too many rules—rules that in the final analysis were from our own imagination and insecurities.

Another lesson was the power of properly placed press releases and public relations. The fact is, we shouldn’t pre-judge what the news media may consider newsworthy. In our case, the fact that our brand had become a clothing line that appealed to females more so than males was considered a story. The branded clothing line also proves that anyone’s brand can work if you present it in a way that has appeal. At MasterLift, we brand everything: batteries, pallet jacks, fleet management program, our loyalty points program and, of course, our lift trucks.

Today, the results and growing awareness for our MasterLift brand continues. We estimate that the media coverage alone was worth well over $100,000 of advertising costs. Our sales reps cold call with decals and t-shirts in hand. They’re always welcomed with smiles and excited comments about the site. The magic? Those operators proudly wear our t-shirts and put our decals on our competitors’ forklift trucks. Priceless.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association
Gary Wilson Meet the Author
Gary Wilson is president of MasterLift, located in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, and on the Web at www.masterlift.com.

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