BY TOM GRESHAM
One car wash features animatronic dinosaurs, and another has hosted weddings, karaoke contests and marriage proposals. One wash sponsored a uniform trade-in for a free wash when a local NBA star departed for another team, while another held a beer pong tournament featuring the Gronkowski brothers.
For some car washes, fun and levity are their chief promotional tools. They employ a lighthearted approach to building brands that their customers associate with good times. The result is a strong connection with customers that extends beyond the basic services the washes provide.
“Fun is probably the biggest part of what we do, because we want to make sure that washing the car is an attractive thing to people,” said Jenny Beadle, Marketing Director for Woodie’s Wash Shack, which has three locations in the Tampa, Fla., area. “We sell memberships, so we want people to feel like they belong to something that’s more than just about coming in and getting your car washed and leaving.”
Anne Mauler, Vice President of Marketing for Soapy Joe’s, which has 15 locations in the San Diego area, said prioritizing happiness and fun is integral to creating “an authentic-feeling and long-lasting bond with customers.”
“Lack of connection can lead to short-term transactions versus long-term customers, fans and advocates,” Mauler said. “There are a lot of choices customers can make on how they spend their time and money. Making them feel good is key to creating a repeat customer.”
DISTINGUISHING YOUR BRAND
Entertaining customers was central to John Borek’s plans when he started Jurassic Car Wash in Austin, Texas. The wash’s impressive assortment of animatronic and static dinosaurs attracts customers and others. Visitors can insert 75 cents into two of the dinosaurs, and they will come to life – moving their head, wagging their tail, and growling. One dinosaur at an automatic wash entrance at Jurassic sprays water from its mouth at approaching vehicles.
“For parents, it makes their kids happy and that means a lot,” Borek said. “It makes the whole experience easier and more fun for everyone.”
-John Borek, Jurassic Car Wash”
When Borek opened Jurassic Car Wash, it immediately received widespread local media attention and brought in droves of the curiosity seekers – “so many dadgum people came in for a while that it was kind of jamming up the parking lot,” he said. Later, the wash was included in a book about things to do in Austin. The result is that the wash is part car wash and part popular attraction.
“People smile and laugh,” Borek said. “And that’s what it’s really all about.”
Woodie’s Wash Shack provides another example of a brand that has emphasized fun since its founding. The washes use a surf culture motif in everything that they do. In fact, the chain’s name derives from the “woodie” cars often associated with the vintage surf culture of the 1960s. The wash has a collection of classic woodie cars that it features prominently, bringing them to events and staging them at iconic area locations for social media posts.
“The surf culture is something that people in Florida connect with,” Beadle said. “We all live on the beach. Basically, we’re barefoot and covered in sand all the time. So, it really resonates.”
Woodie’s sends street teams and brand ambassadors to music festivals, beach festivals and other events. “We go everywhere,” Beadle said. Brand ambassadors wear costumes that depend on the event. For instance, Woodie’s is the official car wash of the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, and Woodie’s team members in attendance at the race wear racing outfits.
The wash also hosts its own special events. Recently, the Gronkowski brothers, including Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski, participated in a fundraiser at a Woodie’s location for Surfers for Autism. “Gronk” and his brothers helped raise $10,000 for the cause with an appearance that included them riding through the wash in a Toyota FJ Cruiser with the top down. “It was hilarious,” Beadle said. Later that night, the brothers joined YouTube influencers for a beer pong tournament.
Woodie’s, which hopes to expand to 50 locations in the next five years, also has turned its grand openings into major events. A recent opening included a local Kenny Chesney tribute band, among many other attractions.
“Our goal is to create a lifestyle brand that people identify with,” Beadle said.
For Soapy Joe’s, Mauler said fun, quirky events have proved to be great tools for connecting with media, influencers and partner brands, in addition to customers. On Valentine’s Day in 2020, 10 couples got married at Soapy Joe’s for its inaugural Tunnel of Love car wash wedding. In 2021, couples submitted videos of marriage proposals taking place at Soapy Joe’s locations. Voting on social media determined the winning couple who would receive wedding rings and $10,000.
The brand’s car wash karaoke tournament showcased customers performing karaoke in the wash tunnel and posting the videos on social media for voting.
-Jenny Beadle, Woodie’s Wash Shack”
“It has been so fun to see our customers get creative and let their hair down with amazing lip sync choreography or passenger seat scavenger-hunt proposals,” Mauler said. “The willingness of our fans to engage and create with us is an incredible display of trust and acceptance.”
Mauler said humor is very much a part of the way we connect with our customers. For example, she pointed to the wash’s mascot, Soapy, and “his friendly and inviting smile.” The brand’s “Meme Monday” social media posts use trending images and topics to draw connections between pop culture and Soapy Joe’s.
Similarly, iCarwash in Houston, Texas takes advantage of its digital display board to use humor and pop culture to give its customers something to smile about. During the recent theatrical run of the latest “Fast and the Furious” film, the wash used an image of Vin Diesel, who famously celebrates “family” in the series of movies, to promote its family plan.
In January 2021, iCarwash attracted media attention as far away as England and Japan when it offered a free wash to customers who wanted to trade in a James Harden jersey after the Houston Rockets star was traded to the Brooklyn Nets. Sean Qureshi, Owner of iCarwash, said the promotion was less about capitalizing on attention and more about reaching out to customers to have fun with a dispiriting moment.
“I knew that the trade was affecting me. I felt a lot of heartache from it, so I figured my customers were feeling it, too,” Qureshi said. “I thought it was a way we could make fun of it some while empathizing with the community.”
AN AUTHENTIC CULTURE
A fun brand must be authentic to connect with customers. Julie Smith, Director of Human Resources for Soapy Joe’s, said making “fun” central to your brand starts at the top and includes the entire team.
“We have been focusing on culture for years, and an important part of that is ensuring the entire leadership team is aligned around our core values, including ‘Have Fun,’” Smith said. “These are not just token phrases to print on a wall, but guiding principles that drive all aspects of the business.”
-Anne Mauler, Soapy Joe’s”
Qureshi said the industry is one that lends itself to a light-hearted approach.
“A car wash is a fun environment, and the marketing should show that,” he said. “It’s fun to come here, and we should make sure people know it.”
Borek agreed. In contrast, he was in the body shop business for 30 years, and “you really wouldn’t have a bunch of dinosaurs at a body shop.”
“We’re in a society where everyone is always go, go, go, and work, work, work,” Borek said. “It’s all about getting things done. Sometimes, you want to just step back and smile. People come here and laugh. That’s something we can provide them, so we should do it.”