Lessons from U-Haul University


By Larry Galler

While driving on the crowded Chicago expressway system, the traffic slowed, then crawled, and finally stopped. I was stranded, moving ten feet and stop, ten feet and stop, again and again. I found myself stuck behind a brightly painted U-Haul truck. There was nothing else to occupy my eyes while slowly crawling towards my destination, so I started reading the signs on the truck and got a good lesson in Marketing Messages 101: Features and benefits, de-commoditization of a commodity.

The U-Haul approach

In those long, agonizing, minutes I spent stuck in traffic, I began to feel as if I was taking a mini-course at U-Haul University. U-Haul uses its vehicles as rolling billboards. Their trucks and trailers are covered with marketing messages, features, and benefits to differentiate its products from the competition.

A big arrow on the liftgate points out that the truck features “extra-low load height — easy on your back” and a “ten-foot loading ramp — easy to enter.” I noticed that the signs touted both the feature (extra-low load height) and the benefit (easy on your back). That’s great copy writing! Even if the competition has the same load height, those competitors are not shouting it out to the world on thousands and thousands of trucks throughout the country.

Later, as traffic cleared, I was able to pull ahead and noticed many other feature/benefit messages on the side and door of the truck. The message was clear: U-Haul went the extra mile to design vehicles that are easier to load to move a household… good reasons to rent from them. In addition, they use their product as the medium to transmit the message that is inexpensive — when you calculate the “cost per impression” by the hundreds of thousands of daily impressions as compared to the cost of media-buys to gain the similar number of impressions — and very effective.

Look, in the truck-rental business, the competing company’s products are all, at least to someone who rarely needs to rent a truck, similar if not the same. The only differentiators are price (though not much) and convenience.

Aside from a convenience and location factor, there isn’t much reason to choose one company over another… unless a company has made the impression that their product and service is somewhat better — and if something promises it will be easier on my back, I’m impressed.

The longer I was stuck in traffic behind that truck, the more I understood how communicating “features and benefits” and “de-commoditization of a commodity” can benefit any company, especially in a service industry.

Your mobile billboard for marketing messages

Just like in rental trucks, most of your customers and prospects think all service providers are the same. Yes, I know this isn’t true, but it’s the perception of the buying public. And, just like U-Haul, you can profit by raising the perception of your company, but you must shout it out to the world.

You might not have the budget for decorating your truck like U-Haul has, but whether you have one truck or a small fleet, even if marketing money is tight, you can still add benefit-laden signage to your truck on just one panel — say over the rear of the truck to begin. A few months later, add more messages to one side. Eventually, you will be announcing your company’s attractive features and benefits wherever your truck is driven (or parked) in your community.

Just for kicks, while still following that U-Haul truck I thought up and jotted down a few that a carpet cleaner could use:

  • Dog make a mess on your carpet? It will look like new when we get done!
  • Guests coming to your house? Call and we’ll make it the envy of all!
  • Sofa looking dingy? Don’t replace it — we’ll make it look great!
  • Tile looking grungy and dull? We’ll transform it to look better than new!
  • Dryer vent a fire hazard? Worry no more with our vent cleaning service!

While I was behind that truck, I jotted down 20 different features and benefits messages a carpet cleaner could use to sign a truck just as an exercise. There are probably hundreds more.

If you have multiple vehicles, you could put different messages on each to increase the number of positive impressions your prospects will see.

In my daily travels, I see carpet cleaning trucks just about every day. Most just have the name of the company, a phone number, and usually a website address, but few capture my eye and give me reasons to call one cleaner over another.

Some trucks list the services they sell as well. That’s better, but for very little extra cost, they could be making their businesses distinctive and even memorable.

While this signage is informative, it is so dull and boring that the trucks, for most intents and purposes, are invisible as an advertising message. To attract the eye, you’ve got to do something that is attractive and informative, and you get extra credit (more eyeballs attracted) if you can inject a little humor or introduce some graphic elements to grab attention.

Why don’t you stop at a U-Haul rental facility and study the marketing messages on their vehicles? Look at all the features and benefits each vehicle announces to the world. Consider how you can use their communications technique to bring your   to your prospects as you drive through your market area.

If you are stuck for graphics, stop in at a sign shop or graphic artist to get ideas. If you’re stuck for words, do a search for a copywriter in your area. I know that this level of signage must work for U-Haul because they’ve been doing it for years. I also know it will also work for you.

Even though being stuck in traffic is frustrating, it can be a thought-provoking learning moment, but the next time I’m stuck on the expressway, I’ll opt to be behind a more entertaining vehicle. I’m tired of reading about low heights and back pains.

Larry Galler has been creating marketing and management breakthroughs for owners of small and mid-size businesses for more than 20 years. For a free telephone strategy session, email [email protected]. Subscribe to his weekly newspaper column and newsletter at www.larrygaller.com.

Cleanfax Staff

Cleanfax provides cleaning and restoration professionals with information designed to help them manage and grow their businesses.

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