The Rise of AutoNation

February 14, 2014

By Ken Beaulieu

Last year, over a dizzying five-month period, AutoNation moved from a fractured brand identity comprising a multitude of local brands to a single national brand. A risky endeavor for a company with 21,000 employees, the goal was to elevate the customer experience and streamline advertising.

“We felt our customers were ready to move beyond the mom-and-pop dealer,” says Greg Revelle, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at AutoNation, the largest automotive retailer in the U.S., with 267 new vehicle franchises in 15 states. “We did a lot of homework to better understand the attributes consumers were looking for in a nationally branded dealer.”

Revelle shares some key insight from the rebrand.

Q. What are the main advantages of operating under a single identity?

A. First and foremost, trust. From a consumer’s perspective, I think there’s a natural tendency to trust large national or global brands, more so than local brands. Trust is especially important in auto retail. One of the primary reasons we decided to rebrand the company was to show consumers that we are different from your typical mom-and-pop auto retailer, and in a very positive way.

We also became a more efficient marketing organization as a result of our rebranding effort. When we had a collection of local brands, we had to tailor our creative literally thousands of times. We were able to consolidate our creative, which helped us to tighten our message. It also allowed our agency partners to focus on fewer things, enabling them to deliver higher quality work. Our creative now has a level of polish that was not achievable previously.

Q. How did you keep employees in the loop throughout the rebranding process?

A. It was a challenge. Each of our employees is somehow touching or espousing the brand to customers, so we needed to bring them all up to speed in what we were doing, why, and how. We only had two months to pull it all together because we wanted to keep our rebrand under wraps for as long as possible to maximize media exposure. Every member of the marketing team had some communication responsibilities to reach the various constituencies around the organization. But it wasn’t just a marketing activity; we had a huge multifunctional team behind it, with an intense series of meetings from the day we decided to rebrand through the final rollout across the country. The top executives at the company each had a checklist of things they needed to do, and it cascaded outward from there.

Q. How has AutoNation’s redesigned website improved the customer experience?

A. It used to be that when you were in the market for a vehicle, you would look at a brochure and watch and listen to ads on TV and radio to get inspiration. And so, the average customer would visit 4.5 stores before they bought a car. Over the past 10 years, that number has dropped to 1.3 stores because customers are doing all this research before they buy. They’re not making a decision after doing a test drive anymore. By the time they actually go into a store, they’re ready to pay and pick up the keys.

Our new web platform allows customers to fill in their profile and input various criteria they’re looking for in a vehicle. There’s also a lot more transparency in terms of how vehicles are priced, making the negotiation process more efficient. About a third of our web traffic is via mobile. Previously, we didn’t have any sort of mobile-optimized experience. Now, there’s the potential to convince someone perusing another dealer’s lot to leave that store and come to ours. Once we identify you as a customer, we can start marketing to you individually with all the information you need to know to pick the right vehicle, and if we do it right, buy it from us.

Q. What is the primary risk of rebranding an organization as large as AutoNation?

A. It’s important to recognize that there’s a cost associated with a rebrand, not just in the effort involved, but in the potential equity lost. Our primary objective was to transfer the equity of the old brand to the new brand. It took a good three months at least before that equity was fully transferred. We aggressively moved to educate our existing and previous customers about our rebrand, especially through direct marketing channels. We wanted them to know that they would get the same great customer care, as well as other benefits. After the rebrand, we continued to mention the old market names in concert with the new name so that our customers knew we had evolved, not disappeared.


"The Rise of AutoNation." Ken Beaulieu, 2014.