Auto dealers and auto makers are working harder than ever to build brand awareness and loyalty with consumers.

Auto makers try to reinforce the unique attributes of their cars and trucks in a tough economic climate, while dealers face an additional challenge of differentiating themselves from the franchise across town often selling the same product.

So how can dealers position themselves as the ideal place to shop for and buy a new vehicle? The most impactful and cost-effective way to achieve brand resonance is to invest in the right images to leverage in TV commercials, print ads and on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

Over the decades, the right images — photographs, graphics, or illustrations — have been essential in brand building.

While it is clear that images are essential in creating an emotional connection with consumers, dealers and auto makers should consider five tips to improve their brand image and resonance with today's consumer.

Use the right digital images to reinforce positioning

Consider Volkswagen. This automaker understands the demographics, values and attitudes of their customers, and uses images that convey value, safety and reliability. These images particularly resonate with consumers given today's economic climate.

GM has also done a good job of reinforcing its new ”satisfaction guarantee” positioning in its new “May the Best Car Win” print and broadcast ad campaign. If people who buy a new Chevrolet, Buick, GMC or Cadillac are not 100% satisfied, they will have 60 days to return the vehicle for a full refund.

A dealer example of differentiation comes from Carter Subaru in Seattle. Through “Planting a Forest One Test Drive at a Time,” the store aligns itself with its core target market of outdoor enthusiasts and environmentally conscious consumers, says Danny Levine of NationAd Communications. When people test drives a Subaru, the dealership plants a tree in their name.

Invest in custom images vs. stock photography

Many dealers have a false belief that custom photography is prohibitively expensive. This is not necessarily the case. Dealers interested in establishing a unique identity for their business should consider the benefit of custom lifestyle photos. These give more flexibility around the rights and use of the images, can be more cost effective in the long run and provide assurance that a competitor won't use the same image.

Leverage the auto makers' image libraries

This is an excellent way for dealers to extend brand resonance with their customers. Larry Walsh of Honesdale Auto Mart says, “Over the course of the selling year, the manufacturer often has many different ad campaigns, usually centering on the consumer's lifestyle and their cars or trucks. If the dealer were able to access more of this lifestyle photography and reinforce key messages, the branding would be strengthened. Branding works best when everybody is on the same page.”

Take your brand viral

Leverage new social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter to keep your dealership top-of-mind with customers or potential customers. “In today's world, advertising paradigms are shifting rapidly as consumers increasingly control their choice of media and information in unprecedented ways,” says Levine. “There is a proliferation of new media that cannot be ignored, including search engine pay-per-click advertising, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to increase your organic ranking, Social Media portals like Facebook and Twitter, and mobile phone marketing.”

Maximize your investment

Some easy ways to do this include keeping your digital assets organized by cataloging them with key wording in a central library. Another opportunity is to extend the use of your digital assets on Facebook or other social networks.

Effective brand building goes a long way toward helping the dealer achieve critical business and communication objectives.

Jennifer Gehrt is founder of Communiqué PR and author of “Strategic Public Relations: 10 Principles to Harness the Power of PR.”

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