Fred for the People

You should watch this video so you can understand the rest of the article:

As a guy who writes about whatever I think are interesting stories for car people, I thought I had a story when my friend started working at Grote Automotive. Every town, I think, has a car dealer who has an ad campaign that is “over the top” to the degree that “over the top” doesn’t really do the volume and attention seeking of the ads any justice. Grote’s “Fred for the People” ads, one of which you can see with the embedded link, are the sort of shouting, quick cut, props and earworm phrase affairs that quickly polarize the viewer (or radio listener). You laugh at them or you hate them. Which, to me, meant there were a couple of obvious stories to tell. One was, “Is that what Fred Grote is like in person?” Either he’s the sort of guy who walks around on 11 all the time (a story to be sure, if true), or he’s doing a heck of a job acting that way. The seconds was, “What is the logic behind this kind of ad campaign?” Who is being targeted and does it work?

The answer to the first question is “no.” Grote is a pretty soft-spoken fellow, particularly for a life-long car salesman. He started working at a car dealership in Decatur, Indiana when he was only a 15 year-old high school sophomore. For Grote, detailing cars was more fun than school, even when they were farmer pick up trucks that came in with last season’s manure from the fields still stuck in the bed. Eventually Fred moved to the Kelley Automotive group in Fort Wayne, working his way up to managing GM brands like Cadillac and Buick in both Indiana and Georgia. In those early days, selling GM cars in a GM town was a pretty low-key affair. People would tell you this was their “tenth Buick” and usually didn’t need too much convincing. The cars “sold themselves” as the cliché goes.

Grote struck it out on his own in 2007, starting a car lot on Coliseum Boulevard on the east side of Fort Wayne where it crosses with Lake Avenue. Selling used cars at high volume would be a different challenge than working at a multi-brand GM dealership operation. You had to stand out, especially if you wanted to be the top independent dealer, which Grote aimed to be. Fred is amiable but competitive. Networking with other car dealers, Grote ended up hearing about Gravitational Marketing. Their philosophy with advertising was “Same is Lame” and they craft campaigns that stick out. Not everyone is going to love the ads, but at least they won’t be forgettable. Nobody will fail to notice a Grote Automotive ad, that’s a fairly easy concession to make about the “Fred for the People” spots. As a writer and academic, sometimes I find PBS to be too high energy for me, so admittedly, I’ve probably flipped the channel on more Grote ads than those I’ve listened to all the way through, but, then again, I remembered them didn’t I?

Grote concedes, I’m probably not the target audience anyway. People like me are “intenders” in the sales lingo. When I’ve bought cars, I had done quite a bit of research and knew exactly what I was going to get with severely limiting factors like manual transmission, model and trim. I frequently had to go another state to get the car I wanted.

While Grote Automotive does get a few customers like me, more of them come in with a great deal of uncertainty and even anxiety. For a lot of car hobbyists, buying a car isn’t a very fraught affair—it’s akin to buying a baseball card, Beanie Baby or model train for people who have those hobbies. The only stress is not having the money to buy every car you want to own. But for people who don’t know much about buying a car and financing that purchase, it can be overwhelming. Think about all the options—SUV, sedan, coupe, diesel, turbo, leather, AWD, two stroke (OK, only if you’re buying a Trabant or a Saab 96—just making sure you’re paying attention) and that’s before you run your first credit check and consider a warranty or insurance. For these customers, the car salesperson is something of a counselor as well. Those are the customers Grote serves especially well. Do they try hard to make sure they don’t leave the lot without buying a car? I’m sure to an extent, that’s true, but my short time with Fred Grote made me feel as though they do work hard to see that each customer gets put in the best vehicle for their needs, which they might not fully understand when they show up at the lot.

Grote’s ads draw in lots of customers who are first time buyers, have poor credit or need to stretch their thin budgets to get a car so they can start going to work right away. The Grote ads make these folks feel like they are buying ads from “someone” rather than “some place.” They feel, at a certain level, they “know” Fred Grote. That’s the funny thing about being on TV, isn’t it? Whether we are talking about cars or something else—sports, politics, whatever—we form a relationship in our minds with people we recognize, even if it’s from multiple exposure to ads that might annoy us or photo ops by people we will never meet in person.

What is it like for Fred Grote to be a local “celebrity?” Well, it has trade offs, as you might imagine. Kids in particular seem to love the ads (too bad they don’t have FICO scores), which can be fun for a guy like Fred, who has four children of his own all with his high school sweetheart to whom he’s still married. He gets recognized everywhere—restaurants, the mall, the mundane every day trips we all do with no threat of being accosted by fan or foe. Foes there are, of course. They get some hate email, but you don’t even have to be a celebrity of any kind to get that these days. In the end there might be some people who won’t buy a car from Grote Automotive because the ads drive them nuts. Not enough to reconsider the campaign though. Since starting the ads in 2013 Grote’s sales have gone up from 60 cars per month to about 160. Sales are now limited somewhat by the size of the facility and, after expansion, Grote hopes to be selling 200 cars per month, which would meet their goal of being the top dealership in Fort Wayne.

So the next time you see a Grote ad (or another ad for an air fryer or Red Bull or whatever else comes screaming at you to buy, buy, BUY) and you wonder, “Who is that guy?”--well, now you know, at least a little bit. The next time you wonder how much the ads and the semi trailer cost (it ads up to about 0.05% of total monthly sales, when you average it out) or you wonder if the ads work (they do), you have some idea. And if you see Fred Grote and decide to say, “Hi,” he’ll probably humbly answer a couple of your questions, too, like he did mine. He’s not going to yell at you. He might try to sell you a car, though. We car guys are just hard to steer in another direction once you get us started, aren’t we?

Grote Automotive is located at 1630 North Coliseum Boulevard in Fort Wayne. You can check out their inventory or send them hate mail (just kidding, don’t do that) at