Can you believe that 45 years have passed since McDonald’s first used the tagline, “You Deserve a Break Today”? Search online for those vintage 1970s TV commercials, and once you’re done laughing, take a second to reflect. It seems obvious. Of course a company like McDonald’s needs to keep up with the times. It makes sense that within just the last 10 years McDonald’s has given most of its restaurants a complete facelift and updated its logo to better help us all realize that “I’m Lovin’ It.” It’s not just fast food however. Nothing stands still. Brands evolve. Recent news of Google, Verizon, Starbucks, and even Cadillac updating their logo, begs the question, has your car wash kept up with the times?

I recently contracted a marketing outfit to redo the logo, website, menus, and signage at my washes. Why? For the same reason as McDonald’s or any retail brand for that matter: to remain relevant to my market. I’ll admit that I find the art of producing a clean, dry, shiny car more interesting than the art of choosing colors, fonts, and messages. I’ll also admit that it’s hard for me to truly embrace the fact that the branding and graphics at my wash is as important to acquiring and retaining customers as the quality of the wash I deliver, but I know it’s true.

There’s magic in all this branding stuff. It’s what makes me way more comfortable handing over $3 to a Starbucks barista, than to my local gas station for a cup of coffee. It’s not just some signs and a logo. Proper branding at your car wash is creating an intentional plan to connect to your customer through every aspect of your business. This includes everything from uniforms, the condition of your driveway and maintenance of your vacuum stations, to the logo on your monument sign. There’s a lot to consider. When I first contacted the group that’s redoing my branding, they asked me some questions along those lines. I wasn’t prepared and found myself telling them to just show me some designs to pick from. Leaving the branding of my business to blind luck would be a foolish move however, so I decided to outline a better plan to organize my thoughts. Here’s what I came up with. I hope it helps.

Step 1: Write Down Your Story

Your story, also known as your competitive advantage, is the reason customers choose your wash over the competition. Are you the most convenient, fastest, or highest quality? Is your wash focused on community service, protecting the environment, or offering some proprietary service? This can be tricky, but it’s important to have it clearly in mind before moving to the next step. If you’re struggling, I tell operators to take every competitor in a 5-mile radius. Imagine you could pick up each wash and place all of them in a circle around a single customer. What would you run out and tell that customer as the reason they should drive onto your property over everybody else’s? Write that down and keep it clearly in mind while doing the rest.

Step 2: Look at Your Wash From the Customer’s Point of View

Next, walk as far away from the front of your car wash as you can. Leave your driveway. Go across the street and down the road. Check every approach to the property. How should it look to communicate what you wrote down in the previous step? Maybe you need different landscaping, architectural features on the building, or maybe just a new coat of paint. In my case we realized we needed to change the color scheme and are resurfacing the awning canopies as part of that. Dig deep here. Uniforms, wash menu, package design, instructional signs, vacuum station lighting, and of course your logo, all play a part in communicating your competitive advantage. In the previous step you were allowed to run out and tell the customer why to choose your wash, this time, imagine how your property should appear to customers for them to make that choice on their own.

Step 3: Outline the Design “Story”

I’ve seen car washes with themes ranging from 1950s diners, race cars, rustic barns, and even steamboats. Those operators obviously had a clear image of what would communicate their competitive advantage story, but for many of us the image is fuzzier. Most brands have either a corporate, playful, or luxury feel to them, and any of the three can work. If you think of steakhouses for example, you can have a luxury brand such as The Capital Grille, or a more playful brand such as Outback. You shouldn’t have to instruct your designer with the specific fonts to use, but you need to give them some direction that matches your vision. If all you tell your designer is “I need a logo for a steakhouse,” don’t be surprised if you get Outback when you meant Capital Grille, or vice versa. Provided you’ve completed steps 1 and 2, you should have a story to tell your designer about what sets you apart, and how the customers you’re trying to call out to need to see your car wash. Tell your designer that story and you’ll get a logo design and colors that will help convey it to your customers.

Step 4: Define Leadership and Training Requirements

Clean sharp uniforms are just the beginning. By now you probably realize that creating a brand that speaks to your customers is about much more than a logo and some signs. Employees must not only dress in accordance with your requirements, they must exude your brand in how they walk, talk, and interact with customers. They have to know the same story as your graphic designer, believe in it, and convey it as predictably as your logo. That demands leadership, a structured training program, and staff development.

Step 5: Define the Requirements and Budget

I’m a big fan of doing projects in batches. What I mean is that if you’re going to invest in redoing your branding, start with your logo, but look at the entire property. List every detail. If you’ve been thinking about adding a new pay-wax service, do it as part of your re-branding so you can incorporate it into your menu, and maybe create a flyer. If you’ve been thinking it would be a good idea to create a set of reusable holiday promotional street signs you could use year after year, such as red cars free on Valentine’s Day, have your designer complete the artwork for that, and every sign possible, now, while he has the files open. Include any landscaping changes, building improvements, and equipment upgrades you’ve been considering into a complete re-branding.
Customers may develop beliefs about the quality of your car wash from the branding on your site, but only if it’s enough to notice. Doing everything you’ve defined at once makes it more likely to get the biggest bang for your buck. Once you’ve listed everything to tweak, or completely remake your branding, create a budget and schedule. It’s a lot of work. “You Deserve a Break Today,” may be a well-earned sentiment once you’re done, but if you fail tokeep up with the times, it’s likely your competition will.

Good luck, and good washing!

Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as president of SONNY’S The CarWash Factory, creator of the Original Xtreme-Xpress Mini-Tunnel, and the largest manufacturer of conveyorized car wash equipment, parts, and supplies in the world. He can be reached at or at (800) 327-8723 ext. 104.