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Conrad's "whisper campaign' —NOT

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CLEVELAND—Shhhh...whisper it if you dare: Conrad's Tire Service Inc. recently opened a new location in the Akron area and is shovel-to-the-ground working on yet another in those parts.

OK, you don't have to whisper it. In fact, as the heavily competitive retail marketplace in the Greater Cleveland/-Akron area goes, Conrad's would prefer the news be shouted. The Cleveland-based dealership sprung open the bay doors Aug. 1 on a new store in Green, south of Akron, and recently broke ground on an outlet on the Copley/Fairlawn, Ohio, border, bringing to five the number of locations it has in Summit County and the Akron area.

The company looks at the Greater Cleveland/Akron area as one contiguous market, which is how it plays out its media buys, according to Dominic Umek, Conrad's general manager. The dealership operates 33 stores there—Copley will make 34—and “we look at it as filling in our Northeast Ohio footprint,” he told Tire Business. There are still some holes to fill, including in the Green and Copley areas, as well as on the east and west sides of Cleveland, he acknowledged.

Staffs, including management, for the new stores are normally taken from existing outlets, Mr. Umek said, culling associates who've been with the company awhile. “We just find our greatest success is when we take seasoned, experienced Conrad's associates and we place them in a new store, so the customer gets the best experience out of the gate rather than have new associates trying to learn Conrad's while servicing the customers.”

The company's store in Green is based on the prototype the dealership has used in its last seven store locations: nine service bays; 6,500 square feet, with ample storage for tires and parts, etc.; and 10 employees.

The dealership's ads have been a staple on Greater Cleveland airwaves since its founding in 1969 by Ed and Joan Conrad, who are now in their 80s but still sit on the company's board, as do their four children—all integrally involved in strategic planning.

Retail comprises 81 percent of Conrad's operations with the remainder in wholesale. Auto service is tabbed at 53 percent of retail revenue, with tires/wheels at 47 percent. The company, which employs 289, is a Goodyear-aligned dealership with John Turk as its president and CEO.

While no specific new advertising or marketing campaigns will be worked in tandem with the new store openings, “What happens with us,” Mr. Umek said, “is most of the Cleveland radio and TV stations we buy media on are also very highly ranked in the Akron/Canton marketplace. We did have to complement some of the radio stations with some Akron-based stations, however, to support Green and other Akron stores.

“But we have a normal but a little bit more intense advertising package used for all new stores that involves a heavier direct-mail approach and heavier newspaper ads than what we take traditionally.”

Newspaper advertising, he admitted, hasn't produced much of a bang for the buck since the late 1990s, so Conrad's boosts its effectiveness by going mostly to local community newspapers and using advertising as an insert in them—almost as a direct-mail component—though it also will place ads in the papers, if necessary. The company mostly focuses its ad buys on electronic, direct mail and digital, and tweaks the packages for local markets.

As the dealership continues to grow and fill in pockets, Mr. Umek said Conrad's typically doesn't want its stores closer than six miles apart.

“We're really looking at opportunities, and we rank them. How we do that is we have a certain demographic profile that we know our stores are most successful in. It ties to the number of households, average household income, competitors in the area, etc. We look at areas where we don't have stores, and start picking those off as opportunities arise.”

Some decisions to expand are easier to make than others and come quickly; others not so much.

For the Copley store now being built, for instance, Mr. Umek said, “We've been looking for eight years to get a store there in that location.” A lot depends on matters like what city zoning is, land availability, how agreeable a developer is, and what potential a site has for development.

It's like a horse race, he added. Conrad's looks at what sites it is able to move on, then waits to see how each progresses and jockeys for position. “We don't put anything off the table.”

The dealership expands by acquiring some vacant stores, buying and remodeling existing operations—be they an automotive or non-automotive building—and new builds.

While it is company policy to not comment on future developments, Mr. Umek said the company has “several other opportunities in play.... Our approach is methodical, it's a continual process. We like to be slow and steady. And it has worked fairly well for us to this point.”

Yet he acknowledged that “we really do believe we're nearing the end of our store count in Northeast Ohio as we look at the demographic map, population density, and see where we already have locations. It's a conversation that's ongoing internally about what's next.”

That could likely mean expansion beyond its Northeast Ohio comfort zone and, Mr. Umek said, “we continue to 'bake the plans' for our next step. And we acknowledge that next step will be a big one for us. You can expect, as we have been over the years, to be very methodical as to where we want to go from here.”

For those within earshot of the dealership's marketing campaigns, there is a rest-of-the-story story to its ubiquitous ads that simply whisper “Conrad's.” It usually can be heard at the tail-end of a standard ad, but sometimes shows up simply as a two-second whisper during a radio station's programming.

The audio signature sign-off boiled to the surface back in the early '80s when a Conrad's general manager was working on a new ad spot at a local radio station and the producer said the ad was, frankly, missing something—it needed some “zing.”

So they got the station's receptionist to come back to the recording studio and say “Conrad's” in as many different ways as she could. At one point, her instructions were: “Imagine Paul Newman's in the room and you're whispering sweet nothings to him.”

So she whispered “Conrad's.” The rest, as they say, has been history.

“It was made that way and it stuck,” Mr. Umek explained. “It was something different and it stood out.”

It's been a way to grow brand awareness and reinforce it throughout the marketplace. A way to remind consumers that it may be time for tires, or for auto service.

“I have to admit, the most equity we have is in that whisper—the number of consumers who come in and whisper it to us is just amazing,” Mr. Umek said.



To reach this reporter: smikolajczyk@crain.com; 330-865-6130.
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