Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2005   by Jim Anderton

International Relations

Import nameplates are increasing in popularity. Innovative brake friction branding strategies can boost your import brake business


It’s in the headlines every day: “Imports increase market share”. “Japanese manufacturers on a roll”. “European luxury car sales increase”. For the service aftermarket, the vehicle fleet is changing with import nameplates, built in North America and abroad, gaining ground on traditional domestic brands. And it’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. For shops where the brake category is a bread-and-butter component of the sales mix, addressing the trend isn’t a matter of convenience, it’s a bottom line necessity. What friction should you use or, more importantly, promote?

The answer depends on two questions: What is the vehicle fleet that you service now and what’s the mix that you’d like to repair in the future? As imports claim a greater market share, the two aren’t necessarily the same. If your plans include gaining a greater share of the import brake segment, differentiating your offerings from the major chains and the general repair operations in your market is key.

“It’s an opportunity”, declares Ken Selinger, marketing and product development manager, Akebono Corporation North America. “All of those vehicle applications require unique approaches to braking. Frankly, the traditional aftermarket approach of ‘one size fits all’ to friction material is lackluster and doesn’t add value to an installer’s business because of the compromises inherent in that approach. If you segment the market and use materials specifically for vehicle types such as European vehicles as a family, then cater research and development that specifically target and deliver solutions for that type of application, that’s the highest added value that can be provided to the installer.”

All the major friction manufacturers offer extensive import vehicle fitments, but are shops taking advantage of brand names, including lesser-known, exotic (for North America) import O.E.-type brands? Probably not, especially given the major program support offered by the big names. Can installers get an advantage by selecting import brands for foreign vehicle applications?

“Absolutely”, states Pascal Litscher, president, Altrom Canada (PBR, Pagid, Textar brands). “I think it’s important to think about what industry analyst Dennis DesRosiers is saying about the import market. Independent garages are missing the fit, form and function that the customer requires. They’re achieving it with domestics, but not on imports, so they go to the dealers. Brand names like PBR, Pagid and Textar may not ring a bell to most Canadian installers, however, these brand names are original equipment suppliers to car makes such as BMW, Mercedes Benz or Volkswagen.”

“Getting owners to consider brake service at independent shops is directly connected to both the vehicle’s price and on where it is in the ownership cycle, according to Ted Zahara, advertising manager, Affinia Canada Corp. (Raybestos, Quinton Hazell brands): “I believe that owners that can afford 80, 90 or 100 thousand dollar cars love the things that those vehicles exude, but they know little about the operation of the car. They feel comfortable leaving decisions in the dealer’s hands. The second or third owners are a little more educated about the quality of aftermarket parts. It’s all a mindset. As aftermarket manufacturers, if we can overcome that mindset, we’ll all win.”

Good, better, best?

Traditional thinking has been (and in many places still is) that friction should be marketed as ‘good, better, best’, but with a varied vehicle fleet, there may be another way. “Domestic”, “Asian” and “European” can be an alternative to strictly price-driven brake sales, especially if the chosen brands offer O.E.M-level quality. This approach also positions an independent well against the dealer argument that only they use O.E.-quality parts.

There are several options to replace the three-tier approach. One could be “OEM-quality, premium aftermarket, imported aftermarket”, allowing a better than O.E option and an “exotic” brand for meticulous owners.

Another approach could be “platform specific, premium ceramic, quality import aftermarket.” This lineup lets the installer address specific consumer issues, like noise or dusting, while preserving the ultimate ‘exotic’ brand at the top for no-compromise consumers. Other variations are possible, including a personal preference strategy, where an experienced tech chooses from multiple brands depending on prior results on individual vehicles. This includes installing name brand parts with domestic nameplates on import vehicles in selected applications.

One common aspect is the elimination of off-brand or “white box” friction. While there are good technical and safety reasons for avoiding potentially risky parts, equally important is the need to brand your brake service. No-name is no-brand, which leaves independents in a weak marketing position compared to major chains and new car dealerships. Many Canadian shops don’t take advantage of banners, signage and point-of-purchase materials that are a major benefit in associating your premium friction brand with your business. The situation is more difficult for premium offshore brands, which are rarely supported with the same quantity of merchandising materials. As a result, progressive shops have to be creative, either by asking their jobber to source materials from distributors and manufacturers, or by doing something on their own. Even simple, professionally created “We Install…” or “Ask About…” signage can pre-condition a motorist for the upsell.

Challenge number one for the installer is to successfully sell the job, but there may be a little education required before handing over the keys. Federal Mogul (Wagner, Ferodo brands) marketing manager Kevin O’Dowd relates: “In Europe, drivers forgive things that don’t add up to performance. Brake dust is a badge of performance. It goes beyond geography, and addresses the mind set of the consumer.”

O’Dowd notes that he has observed German drivers who don’t hurry to remove dust from front wheels, regarding it as a sign of a serious performance driver. Will Canadian sport vehicle buyers be as tolerant? A lot depends on consumer expectations, one area where technicians and service writers have influence. Technicians know that performance brands that promise the ultimate in stopping power and fade resistance may do so at the cost of noise and dust. It’s essential to pre-condition sport pad users to expect the trade-offs, or a difficult to explain comeback might result.

Does this mean that broad line brands shouldn’t be installed on import vehicles? Clearly ‘No’, since major North American manufacturers make foreign car fitments with O.E. quality or better. From a brand perspective, however, consumers may better trust, and pay more for, friction that suggests that it was born on the same continent as the vehicle. Is it easier to sell Akebono for a Toyota, or Wagner for an F-150, for example? Maybe, but it’s important to keep the consumer’s mind clear about the difference between added brake performance and safety. Major brands are all safe when properly installed. For enthusiast consumers, however, (and a grandmother can love her Cadillac or BMW without being a performance driver) lesser known brands can be a profitable option. Position it correctly, merchandise effectively, install carefully and independents can offer simple brake service with a foreign flair that differentiates them from their competitors, whether they’re an independent, chain or dealer.

Alternate upsell strategies for brake friction, like all categories of auto service, are about profit thorough customer satisfaction. As Ken Selinger states, “The absolute value at the end of the day is about two questions: does the customer recognize the value of what you offer them and have you solved their problem? If you answer ‘yes’ to those two questions, you have a home run.”

Don’t forget about the hardware

Exotic or import friction is a great way to differentiate your brake service for impor
t owners, but brake service is about more than just pads. According to Pete Murnen, director of marketing, Federal-Mogul Friction, “Our research found that techs are interested in the performance and cool look of European friction. They also told us that dealerships sometimes don’t stock hardware kits, requiting a special order.” Some brands, like Federal-Mogul’s Ferodo, carry extensive hardware offerings, but some don’t, so remember to not assume that kits are readily available for every fitment. If you have to order hardware ahead of or with the friction, remember to book the service appointment with enough lead time to pull the parts together. Delays on the hoist can kill your customer’s (and your) enthusiasm for that cool Euro friction.