At 1 a.m. on February 10, 2009, Ryan Ferrero jolted awake to an idea he’d had in the back of his head for six months. An "a-ha moment" far too good to keep to himself, he phoned David Moll, CEO of Boulder-based investment firm Infield Capital, and the two later took to a white board to begin mapping out the framework for Green Garage, an eco-conscious, full-service auto-care center bent on filling what Ferrero believed to be a gaping hole in the category and changing how consumers approached car care and fuel efficiency. "All that we knew how to do with high gas prices was go buy a Prius," says Ferrero, CEO of Green Garage. "It was nuts because there was this incapable culture—our population didn’t know what to do. We just flipped our finger at the gas pump, paid it, and got mad at politicians over it."
In 2010 Ferrero launched Green Garage in Boulder. Now set to expand across the U.S., Green Garage provides a case study in innovation through cross pollination—where ideas from other business categories were brought in and applied in completely new ways. It also provides an illustration of a brand built in conjunction with an ad agency. The company’s creative partner, Crispin Porter + Bogusky wasn’t just recruited to communicate the Green Garage message via advertising. The agency has been involved from the outset in building the brand, and in orchestrating a marketing approach that incroporates everything from product design and in-store experience through ads.
With more than 19 years of experience as a car dealer, Ferrero was well aware of the general sentiment of drivers on the subject of getting their vehicles serviced—a sentiment that, for many, involves images of dated magazine issues littered across a dreary waiting room with a pot of stale coffee to keep them company as they ponder the motivations of the mechanic tinkering under their hood. "The whole experience sucks," says Ferrero. "The industry is just so diseased and mismanaged that everybody has their own level of pain of distrust that you go in thinking, 'How bad are you screwing me here?' We wanted to be the exact opposite."
Combining elements of an Apple store with a full-scale coffee shop, Green Garage has developed an environment in which transparency on the part of its certified mechanics, or "carhuggers" as they’re called, is just as fundamental to the business strategy as sustainable practices and educating customers on how to make the cars they already have run more efficiently. With CPB’s help, the company established a modern design in Green Garage locations in Denver and Boulder, but it’s the salespeople, or "greenskeepers," who are the linchpin to the company’s MO. Ferrero says staff are trained to foster customer trust by ensuring they know from start to finish exactly what maintenance will be performed on their vehicle and why—an experience not unlike the Genius Bar in Apple stores. Brand experience touches big and small contribute to a more collaborative relationship with the customer—down to the way staff are physically oriented vis a vis new patrons. Instead of a face-to-face encounter with a counter in between them, staffers and customers have their initial exchange sitting at a table together with service menus accessible between them. Even the bathrooms are a departure from industry standard.
As for the Green part of the equation, Ferrero acknowledges the green fatigue among consumers confronted with countless businesses and products claiming eco-friendliness, but he welcomes the skepticism.
"When we call ourselves Green Garage, we’re inviting a bit of a fight," says Ferrero. "We did it intentionally, so when the green mafia wants to come check us out, they’ll see how sustainable we are." From decor and furniture made from recycled Coke bottles and cartons, to its line of products including lead-free wheel weights and re-refined motor oil, Ferrero says the company name can stand up to stress-testing.
Back when the company was still an idea, Ferrero says he looked to rally the muscle of "a big, tall team" that could aid in building a brand that could challenge consumer assumptions—not to mention grab a share of an industry led by household names like Jiffy Lube and Midas and an aftermarket sector that’s valued at upwards of $300 billion, according to the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association. As it turned out, creative agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s expansion to Boulder in 2006 provided Ferrero with a fortuitous bit of happenstance.
Andrew Keller, then co-chief creative officer of CPB and now its CEO, knew Ferrero and put him in touch with Alex Bogusky, the since-departed founding partner of CPB, setting in motion an equity partnership. "We got involved because the idea of sustainability with car maintenance and service is very contradictory—there’s this innate tension there," says Neil Riddell, EVP/executive director of Product Innovation at CPB. "And there’s a huge amount of white space—nobody’s really doing anything in terms of building brands. It wasn’t that we were going to be a marketing vendor that was going to come in and do some ads. [Ferrero] wanted us to be a true partner and have equity in the company. So that really helped in terms of the formation of the brand and creating that culture."
In addition to the team at CP+B, Ferrero has also managed to wrangle some top tier business names as part of Green Garage’s advisory board, including Whole Foods board member Bud Sorenson; former CEO of Chrysler Tom LaSorda; co-founder of Kinko’s Tim Stancliffe; and former president of Starbucks Howard Behar.
Growing at a compounded quarterly rate of 38% with two established brick-and-mortar garages, Ferrero is ready to spread his brand of green gospel beyond his home state and to the masses through franchising and retail. Areas like San Francisco, Austin, and Ann Arbor have been pegged as the next markets for Green Garage taking into consideration local consumers who are already active in a sustainable lifestyle. And continuing to make good on a commitment to staying green, Ferrero is gunning for acquisitions of existing stores. "We’re staying away from new construction. There’s enough automotive inventory out there to take it, clean it up, get it right, and bring our brand in," he says.
Part of ushering in the Green Garage brand to new locations involves creating space in stores for DIY drivers keen on performing their own maintenance. Early next year, scientifically and ethically vetted products including customized oil change kits, bundled to provide a total maintenance package for six month and two year intervals, will make their way into auto stores as not only a greener alternative to what’s being offered, but one with smart repackaging and "a design aesthetic that’s completely different from anything that’s there," says Riddell.
While many consumers may have the desire to go green, eco-friendly products are, on average, more costly up front than their standard counterparts. So with budgets still tight and prices at the pump lingering at the higher end, one of the challenges Green Garage faces as it scales up is convincing consumers that paying a little more now will save money not in the long run, but in as soon as a few months—a concept, Ferrero mentions, that actually became the company’s first selling point over sustainability. "When we first came together [with CPB] it was about save the world, good; dependency on foreign oil, bad, and what came out of it is holy Toledo, by being green you save money," he says.
And while CPB’s mark has been on all aspects of the brand, of course the lauded ad shop is going to do some ads—some new TV spots are in the works. "I can babble on about how much I love [Green Garage], but communicating it in bite-size chunks where people have the ability to absorb it, I can’t do—and CPB can execute that best in the world."