Auto maintenance chains race to take the lead in digital marketing

4,600 stores in 48 states?
Established 1979?

Pep Boys?
612 stores in 35 states?
Established 1921?

Millions of American consumers obsess over their cars out whether for fun or out of necessity. Competing for the business of auto aficionados and do-it-yourselfers are many auto repair and maintenance chains, including AutoZone and Pep Boys. Yet, while Memphis, Tenn.-based AutoZone has an advantage over Philadelphia’s Pep Boys in terms of the number of physical stores it operates (AutoZone revenues totaled $7.4 billion in 2010, while Pep Boys brought in about $2 billion), industry experts say Pep Boys outshines AutoZone in nearly every direct marketing category. ?

In terms of the brands’ websites, both chains offer discounts to consumers and help them find brick-and-mortar stores across the country. Both companies also point visitors to their email marketing and rewards programs from their online portals. However, Pep Boys scores higher points for its interactive presentation and creative use of its website than AutoZone. ?

“Starting with the websites, the differences are night and day in terms of their use of digital and social. Pep Boys is way ahead of ?AutoZone,” says Rob Price, executive creative director and cofounder of Eleven Inc., a San Francisco-based ad agency. ?

Price praised Pep Boys’ website for its frequent and tech-savvy use of coupons, which appear between dotted lines like traditional newspaper circular discounts. However, consumers can easily “drag” these discounts across the screen to share through email, Facebook and Twitter. The range of coupons gives Pep Boys’ website the same advantages effective in-store retail displays use, he says. ?

“With a good retail experience, you walk in with something in mind, especially with auto parts, and you almost forget what you came in for because you’re delighted by all the specials, deals and bargains,” says Price. “That’s the experience they are going for on the Pep Boys site. I like the way they mimic the look of classic ?coupons — consumers are trained to look for those dotted lines.” ?

AutoZone, meanwhile, links to a traditional newspaper circular on its homepage, but Price pans the three-step process required to view the coupon circular and the fact that it’s a non-interactive PDF version of the traditional newspaper dealsheet. ?

While AutoZone’s site might appear a bit more dated, it does ?garner praise for its organization and clear calls to action. “When you get to the Web, it’s AutoZone that uses very simple blocking ?elements and visual arrangement to make their case, and the messages and content are clearly differentiated,” says Mark Weninger, chief creative officer at Merkle, a marketing services company.?

AutoZone also picks up points for a more facile ?e-commerce platform, which the company promotes prominently throughout its website. ?

“The AutoZone online shopping experience is more prominent throughout their site and much easier to navigate, browse products and purchase,” notes Chase Cornett, director of strategy at Datacore Marketing, a KBM Group subsidiary.?

Pep Boys surpasses AutoZone in its email marketing with frequent and well-designed messages and an easy sign-up process. Pep Boys’ email messages also use friendly brand imagery, such as the company’s mascots, Manny, Moe and Jack, which are modeled after the company’s founders. ?

“What I found is that Pep Boys won the day very clearly; they have a very clear segmentation of the visual field and the points of interest,” says Weninger. “AutoZone looks like someone lifted the message from a Microsoft Word document and pasted it into the overall fields without any overall care.” ?

Consumers who opt in to Pep Boys’ email marketing database ?immediately receive 10% off any merchandise purchase, while ?consumers enrolling in AutoZone’s email marketing receive a free vehicle repair guide.?

“From an email perspective, the sign-up process provides a clear value statement, examples of emails and a streamlined and ?simple data capture process,” says Cornett. “Post-registration, you receive a real-time welcome message with a coupon offer driving ?you back to the store.” ?

The brand identity proudly displayed in Pep Boys’ email marketing, where Manny, Moe and Jack roll out a red carpet in the ?company’s welcome message, is also seen across other media. The three mascots are ubiquitous in the company’s marketing materials, giving it a friendly and somewhat playful image. While AutoZone uses its red and orange branding and logo throughout its marketing collateral, it lacks the brand persona of Pep Boys. ?

“From a brand perspective, it is prominently integrated into all channels and they make great use of Manny, Moe and Jack throughout,” notes Cornett. ?

Neither AutoZone nor Pep Boys returned calls seeking comment for this article.?

Manny, Moe and Jack greet Pep Boys’ Facebook fans by asking them to sign up for a sweepstakes. Pep Boys’ corporate Facebook page tops out at about 34,000 fans, but that outweighs the approximately 3,500 fans of AutoZone on the social network. Experts also panned AutoZone for allowing various Facebook fan pages ?on the social network, saying it indicates the company has no ?clear social strategy. ?

Pep Boys wins the popularity contest on Twitter too, where its ?@pepboysauto account has more than 1,800 followers and interacts with consumers through brand- and auto-related trivia questions and direct messages. AutoZone does not have a prominent national Twitter feed, and its most outward presence on the microblogging service is a Vacaville, Calif., store that has about 100 followers. ?

AutoZone also doesn’t have an answer for the site, which allows consumers to upload photos of themselves onto bobblehead dolls of the Pep Boys mascots, download brand-specific wallpaper and sign up for exclusive offers.?

“Both brands have a Facebook page, but, again, here is a case where AutoZone doesn’t get it,” says Price. ?

While AutoZone may have ignored social networks for now, that could be because its attention was focused on mobile and reaching customers on the go. AutoZone launched an iPhone application in June 2010. Its mobile app has more features than Pep Boys, allowing consumers to find stores, parts and accessories, track their rewards balance and access repair guides. But both retailers need to spend more time innovating here. “Neither has much in terms of functionality,” says Price. “I don’t know why Pep Boys even bothered. At least AutoZone has a storefinder and access to an online repair guide and help for finding car parts. It’s much more utilitarian than the Pep Boys app.”

Brand Champion

Although AutoZone has a larger national ?presence, its direct and digital marketing falls ?flat when compared to its rival. Pep Boys’ social ?media work is setting the company up nicely with a new generation of customers, while ?AutoZone fails to recognize the importance of social media networks — a deciding factor in industry experts’ judgments of the two brands. ?

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