New vehicles are commodities, says Matt Smith, marketing manager for Darling’s, a dealership group in Maine. “You can get the same F-150 pickup from any Ford dealer in the state.”

Such commonality even extends to dealerships themselves. Many of them look alike as automakers spur dealers to build new facilities from standardized designs reflecting a brand.

Amid such uniformity, “How do you stand out?” asks Smith. One way is through community involvement that “gets people to remember you fondly.”

Darling’s, a 14-brand, 6-store operation, seeks to do that in various ways.

For example, the dealership group built two portable photo booths it sets up at fairs and other public events.

Attendees line up to get their picture taken. The dealership emails them a link so they can post the shots on their Facebook pages. With permission, Darling’s puts the pictures on its Facebook page, too.

Total views reach the hundreds of thousands. “The results are pretty staggering,” Smith says. “We thought it would be popular, but we didn’t realize how much.”

He adds: “We stopped thinking like a business and started thinking like a friend. That is the key to social networking. People want to do business with friends.”

Another ice breaker is Darling’s traveling ice cream truck. It is used to raise money for worthy causes.

Free ice cream is distributed from the vehicle, but charitable donations are accepted. Children like the free treats, but they’re not big contributors. That’s fine with Smith; adults are generous enough.

“Skeptics asked, ‘How does giving ice cream away help sell cars?’” he says at a recent DrivingSales conference. “But the project says a lot about our involvement. It bonds people to us in ways that go beyond other marketing efforts. I love going to work every day, because we get to do these cool things.”

Based in Augusta, ME, Darling’s has given away about 50,000 ice cream bars in 11 months, raising $65,000. It’s seasonal mainly. In Maine, winter is not an ideal time to distribute frozen desserts outdoors.

Smith’s only regret? “That we didn’t build two trucks.”

Maine’s vehicle market is “a bit isolated,” and doesn’t always follow national trends, he says. “We don’t get crazy swings.”

In 2009, when U.S. vehicle sales bottomed out, “we did OK,” Smith says. Conversely, in 2012, as the country’s auto sales recovered, “we were down 7% in the first six months.” Sales are up nearly 10% for the dealership group this year.

Darling’s latest offbeat marketing project is called Lot Zombies. It consists of YouTube videos poking fun at aggressive car salespeople “who want your money, not your brain,” Smith says. “Zombies are a bit overdone these days, but they’re still popular.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com