Being a successful car wash owner or operator used to be measured by how well you washed cars. If you covered the basics, you made a name for yourself. Could you consistently provide quality service at a fair price? Did you have experienced, courteous staff? Did you regularly post an advertisement in the local newspaper? If so, great! You were in business.

“Nothing happens until someone sells something.” — Tom Watson, IBMToday, simply doing a good job isn’t enough. Modern technology in washing equipment and soap chemistry has made it easier to deliver a near perfect wash. Because of this, the main place to really differentiate your car wash is through the experience you provide. In other words, you have to sell your service. Otherwise known as sales and marketing.

Marketing, I’m Not Good at That!

Many of you may be thinking, “I’m a car wash owner, not a marketing specialist.” That’s true for most of us. I’m fonder of the operations side of this business. But I know the power of marketing and I also know I can’t give up on the marketing of my businesses to others. I’ve taught myself the basics, I keep up with trends in order to work effectively with my marketing partners … but at the end of the day, I hire marketing expertise. I do so primarily because technology evolves so quickly, and I still struggle to post on Facebook.

What you need to focus on is this: Make sure that existing customers remember you and potential customers find out about you. Sounds like something you’re already doing, doesn’t it? The only difference between you and professional marketers is the who, what, when, where, and how.

I’ll be the first to admit that years ago, when I first started thinking about marketing, my brain immediately shifted into “more” mode. Send more e-mails, do more social networking — literally do more of anything I could think of to get people to come to my car wash. For the amount of work I put in, the results were not always inspiring. This taught me to slow down and think about what I was doing rather than taking frantic, blind action.

Marketing is the art of communicating the value of our car wash to current and prospective customers. I don’t care what kind tool you use — signs, e-mails, social media, or whatever else. I don’t care if you drop leaflets from an airplane. The point is to make sure the message is clearly defined and is getting into the right people’s hands. If not, you’ll spend a lot of time and money with no result. Basically, you must prepare a compelling answer to the question: “Why would a customer choose my wash?”

Fortunately, you don’t have to ask everyone in your market to answer that question, nor should you. All you need to do is look at your market and pick groups of people that you believe will contribute the most to your bottom line over the next year.

Target Acquired

Picking a target audience in no way means that it’s the only group of people you’re ever going to market or sell to. It’s just a way to clearly define groups to help you refine your messaging. The targets that you’ll deal with most often are geographic, demographic, psychographic, and behavioral.

For geographic targets, don’t get lazy and limit yourself to an arbitrary radius around your property. Your five-mile limit may be excluding a large office complex just a half-mile outside of its range. Add that zip code into your territory, and just like that, you’ve exponentially expanded your reach.

Demographics refer to characteristics like age, gender, and income. Remember that using demographics does not mean that everyone within a given group thinks exactly alike. These are just similarities based on shared traits, which you can use to help focus your message to these groups.

Psychographics are similar to demographics, except they measure the personality traits of groups. Behavioral traits simply describe activities that your target market enjoys and the motivations that accompany them. For example, say I’m determining whether focusing on couch potatoes or outdoor enthusiasts would be more effective.

If I decide that couch potatoes are my target, I would definitely utilize TV ads. If I go after outdoor enthusiasts, I might sponsor a nature preserve cleanup or a local running event.

Starting the Campaign

Here is where you start taking action. Pick the most cost-effective media channel that your target market uses and focus on communicating through it. Whichever channel you choose, it should drive the highest amount of traffic to your market. And don’t forget that effective advertising works the first time. If you keep trying something that isn’t working, stop doing it! To that end, make sure you keep records of what works and what doesn’t. Ask people why they came to your wash. Ask people how they learned about your wash.

Keep in mind, though, that you don’t have to break the bank. A simple digital marketing campaign can cost you only a few hundred dollars.

Watch out for the Competition

Don’t ignore your competitors. Assume for a moment that your competitor realizes there’s a large group of runners in your shared market. Moving quickly, they start targeting online ads offering a free trial to their unlimited wash plan. This plan is only available to active runners in select zip codes surrounding their (and your) wash. They also sponsor a local 5k race and hand out flyers to every finisher. The flyer contains the details for a free wash promotion provided they “like” their car wash on social media.

What’s the cost of this market grab? Online ads are very inexpensive, around $1 per click. The 5k-sponsorship cost varies but generally prices around a few hundred dollars. As for the flyers, they can be printed for about $100. Theoretically, for less than $1,000, your competitor can swoop in and steal your customers with ease.

Keep ‘em Coming Back

Two things keep customers loyal to your wash. First is the value of the experience you provide, or your brand. Second is the value of the wash you provide (how clean and shiny their car is and at what price). Think about the experience you provide to your customers. Everything from your site and staff appearance to how you apply detergents plays a valuable role in retaining customers. If they don’t have a good experience at your wash, no discounts or freebies will convince them to return. As one of my mentors used to say regarding free vacuums: “if it’s free and no good, it’s still no good!”

Always Look for Ways to Improve

Simply promoting your wash as fast or cheap will not bring in loyal customers. Sure, you may see a spike in sales, but if that’s the only way you connect with your customers, they will be gone the second a “faster” or “cheaper” wash comes to town.

Remember, you have access to the tools and technology you need to effectively market your car wash. Go a step beyond the basics and attend a few trade shows. Observe other operators to learn what is and isn’t working. Running a successful marketing campaign takes effort and significant time, but as with most things, the harder you work at it, the luckier you’ll become. And always remember, there are marketing experts out there to help you.

Good luck and good washing.

Anthony Analetto has over 35 years’ experience in the car wash business and is a partner at SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at