It’s tempting for car dealers to think of themselves as a brand. Then they’ll run ads touting themselves as the better choice for car buyers.

Of course, staying visible offers value. But I’ve yet to see a branding campaign outperform a strong retail campaign.

In a day when online consumers are shopping dealerships simultaneously and then arriving at just one dealership before signing papers, we need to remind ourselves that a major lead grab is going on.

Major lead aggregators on national TV spots tell consumers they can trust a specific automotive website more than the local dealer. Lead aggregators display new and used inventory of local dealers and then take credit for “hits” from customers.

As an ex-retailer I find it preposterous for a retailer to pay a vendor to display products and then pay again for customer contact information. Imagine going to Wal-Mart with this arrangement?  

Here’s a solution. Strike out on your own. Yes, you need to play nice with the factory, but you don’t have to passively let others reach into your market and create a relationship with your customers and then charge you to find out who wants to buy a car.

Did JC Penny just learn a painful lesson when it began to think it was a brand and not a retailer selling back-to-school jeans? Yes, it did, and it cost the CEO his job and the clothing chain $1 billion in lost sales. Anyone with experience in retail marketing saw this slow-motion train wreck coming early on.

The new CEO has JCPenny airing TV ads with products, prices and coupons, and sales are recovering.

Are you being told your dealership is a brand? If so, just say no. Don’t let others do your heavy lifting. Be a retailer and market like a retailer, and you will get a retailer’s measureable sales response.

Create a local marketing wave that reaches buyers. Promote your own inventory. Tell consumers why buying from you this week saves them time and money. Consumers go where they are invited. Ask them over. That’s called retailing. That’s what you need to do to increase sales now.

Adam Armbruster is a partner in the business-growth firm Eckstein, Summers, Armbruster & Co. He is at adam@esacompany.com and 941-928-7192.