Radio Makes Magic For Merlin 200K Shops


The Merlin chain was launched in Chicagoland back in 1975 and has grown into 27 locations throughout Chicagoland. Radio, and Cumulus Media in Chicago, is a huge part of their success. Let us explain how and why.

Penny McDowell just celebrated her 23rd year as Marketing Director at Merlin. We spoke with Penny, Cumulus Account Executives Roy Marzano and Donna Blanke, who work on the account, and WLS-FM GSM Jeff Smaluk.

Merlin 200,000 Mile Shops is a big proponent of radio and places annual campaigns on both Cumulus FMs: Chicago’s Alternative 101WKQX and Chicago’s Classic Hit station 94.7 WLS-FM. The creative features owners and operators sharing auto care tips with the Cumulus audiences, which are almost always tagged with a special offer each month. Both stations also assist Merlin in supporting their Snug Hug For Kid’s winter clothing drive, benefiting Children’s Home and Aid each year. Merlin kicks off the campaign in late October and wrap it up in mid-December. Donna and Roy have created customized radio programs to assist in this effort and also give the program a hefty amount of PSA support.

Radio Ink: Tell us about yourself and how you got involved in the business?
Penny: I have been with Merlin a long 23 years this month. I started out as a vendor to Merlin. I was working as a sales rep for a media company who produced slides and graphics and Merlin was my customer. They seemed like a great group of guys at the time and I wanted to change careers and move out of visual media. I left my resume and that’s how I landed here. I started as the marketing coordinator and (jokingly) pushed everybody out of the way and said, “Ok I am going to be the boss.” No. I went through the ropes and learned the business because I was new to automotive. It was something I gravitated too. The Merlin franchisees as a whole are a fantastic group of guys to work with. Merlin as a company goes through an extensive vetting process before they hand over the keys to a franchise. Not only does it take money but the right work ethic and desire for success and be involved in the business. Merlin does not have operators who are not involved. They are very much hands-on. 

Radio Ink: What is Merlin?
: Merlin 200,000-mile shops are all about helping the average automotive consumer enjoy the full life of their vehicle. We say that life is better without car payments. We are dedicated to that 200,000-mile proposition, spreading it out through Chicagoland and wherever we have a store. We are going to take that consumer and show them that cars are made to last a lot longer than they were ever before. In order to get to that mileage, point you have to maintain the vehicle. Like you go for a blood test to check on yourself you will do the same maintenance on your vehicle. We have wrapped all of our programs around that 200K mile proposition so we have a Drive for 200K Miles maintenance program. Customers in the maintenance program come and see us every 3K miles and we can guide them as to what maintenance they need. Even our largest package is much more cost-effective than going to a dealer. We are doing the basic services they need and if there are add-ons that a vehicle needs, we are into making sure they won’t have breakdowns.  We also have 200K-mile warranty on our tires and our brakes, and mufflers. When those things wear out we will replace those. It’s all about building a relationship with the customer and getting them back hopefully four times a year with that 3K mile oil change interval. Merlin has been in the Chicagoland market for 47 years. We are a pretty old brand and have traditionally done a lot of radio advertising. Many times, people come in our store and think we are a 900-1000 store chain but we are really only about 32 stores. Radio has helped us create that big presence. 

Radio Ink: Why did you or the company decide to get into radio?
Penny: When I started, we were doing a little direct mail, but as the franchisor we feel it is our charge to build brand awareness. Direct mail is great for couponing and getting people through the door, but radio really builds the brand. It gives people the feeling about the kind of company they are dealing with. Traditionally, automotive has had a bad name with all the scams and undercover reporting. People don’t wake up in the morning and say “goody I get to go get new tires today.” It’s a grudge purchase. We love our new car ride and feel but the maintenance is not our favorite thing to do. When that customer walks through the door they may already have a negative feeling. We’re trying to build brand awareness through our messaging that Merlin is the place. We are the friendly provider, the upscale provider, in the market. We’re going to help you get your car to 200K miles and make it as painless as possible. All you have to do is come see us every 3K miles, and follow our maintenance program, which we’ll guide you through. Our point of difference is we’re going to show you how to get more life from your vehicle and in turn more life for yourself. Life is better without car payments. Radio really helps us get that message out there.

Radio Ink: How do you know radio is working for you?
Penny: That is the $64,000 question. Last year we cut back on some of our radio spend because we thought this digital thing was exploding and we had to get in. We wanted to dip our toes in the water and do some display advertising. I have to tell you, our sales were down. Is it all because we didn’t spend on radio? I think you have to be there mobiley when someone is on the road. Statistics will tell you that about 60% of your traffic is coming from a mobile search, so we have to be there. But from an advertising standpoint, we know radio works because Chicago traditionally is a huge commuter city. People spend an inordinate amount of time in their cars and we know they are listening. As much as people would like to think satellite radio is going to take over, it is not. It is still terrestrial radio. People are still listening. We know that building that brand and feeling gets the customer in the store. If they don’t have a Merlin within blocks of their home they hear about us then. If we do a mailer, we’re targeting a small area around that store — radio fills in all those gaps. The other way we know it works is when we partner with stations like WLS-FM and KQX and they ask their listeners to do something, they do it. With our Christmas coat drive, they asked listeners to bring new coats and their listeners are standing in -20 degree weather with coats. They respond and that is the best proof.

Radio Ink: Jeff, Can you give us an idea how Merlin is using radio?
Jeff: The success of Merlin has been that they tie into the DNA of the radio stations. The spots help tell that story — the Drive for 200K Miles and that is the brand that we are able to help them establish. People love these radio stations because they connect with a certain point or aspect of their lives. We know internally, if an advertiser wants to have success you need to be part of that DNA. That is exactly what Penny and Merlin does with our Nights We Stole Christmas concert and their integration there. What they do with the coat drive. These are touchstone points for the listener and the radio station. Our DNA is so intertwined now that Kim Burke, who is our morning personality, is in the process of adopting a child. She is using Children’s Home and Aid as her facilitator partially because of that relationship we have through Merlin’s and Children’s Home and Aid. It is using commercials to tell that story but so much more integration at some many other different levels that it allows the listener to be able to be branded by Merlin when they are not really hearing about it. They are hearing about our show or the coat and toy drive or Kim talking about adopting a child. All that goes back to the umbrella of Merlin 200K Mile shops.

Radio Ink: Roy, Donna, why do you think the relationship works with Penny and Merlin?
Roy: From the aspect of what WKQX does, Merlin has a large philanthropy initiative in Q4 and it relates to a program called Children’s Home and Aid. What we do every year in addition to supporting that, which is a winter clothing drive for underprivileged children in the Chicagoland area, is go above and beyond what we do promotionally and deliver a ton of PSA support in Q4. The campaign itself kicks off right after Halloween and goes through December 15. We also tie it in promotionally to what our stations are doing at the time.
Donna: We are the exclusive Classic Hits station in the market and what we have done in the past, certainly the PSAs that Roy was talking about, but also we partner her with some of our other advertisers. In the past, I have partnered her with the Children’s Museum. We included promos asking for warm clothing, hats, mittens, and gloves. When people would visit they would see our signage there and hear promos encouraging them to drop off the clothes. This year we’re rebranding our toy drive. It’s become a coat drive and a toy drive. We’re going to have on-air support and bins located with our retail partners included in the promotion this year. Before with Children’s Home and Aid it’s been coats; now we give the children an opportunity to have a Christmas with toys included. I know Children’s Home and Aid is very excited about the partnership this year. 

Radio Ink: What advice do you have for other advertisers who say they tried radio and it didn’t work?
Penny: Anything you do you have to give a chance to work. You don’t plant a seed and expect to have a beanstalk the next day. You have to water it, grow it, and get yourself in the DNA. It is frequency and building the relationship with the station. Take advantage of different sponsorships and events that you can tie into that make sense. When you form that relationship with the radio station you are valuing each other almost at the same level. They value us because we are buying, but we value them because they are bringing us customers. Our business is very coupon heavy but, in the end, everybody wants to feel good about what they are buying. They want to like the person they are buying from. If they like the radio station and what we are doing with the station they automatically already kind of like us. it makes that transition easier to sell the person what they need on their car. 

Radio Ink: What makes the relationship you have with Donna, Roy, and the whole team at Cumulus work?  
Penny: They are great people. They go above and beyond to make sure our message is heard the right way. They try to tie us into programs that make sense for us. They always have Merlin’s best interests as an advertiser at heart. On a personal standpoint we have known each other a long time and it’s a great partnership. I know when we decide to spend our money with the Cumulus group we’re going to see great value and be very well taken care of.
Donna: We are transparent on each side working together. It’s great that Penny gets it as far as the seed.
Roy: Our best clients, such as Penny, is the word “partnership” and being able to work together. They’re interested in what we have to offer. It’s the credibility. There are so many things out there that give auto repair a bad name. Having us working together provides credibility for both brands. The fact that there is that philanthropic side of Merlin also puts out a ton of credibility in the market about who they are and that they care about other people. Chicago is the third-largest city but there are a lot of people here who care about each other. That is a great layer they have. They are looking for integrity out of all their franchisees and that trickles down from corporate. There are some stores that raise funds and donate thousands of dollars every year to Children’s Home and Aid. They’re behind the community as well. Penny has done a great job at branding Merlin 200K Mile shops. People in Chicago know that they don’t just care about business, they care about the community.
Donna: I have 376K miles on my car and I have had one of the franchisees taken my car to have the emission control test because I didn’t have time. The service they offer is above and beyond.
Penny: Our Snug Hug for Kids Clothing drive is a very important part of Merlin. We’ve been doing it for 27 years. We collect between nine and 10 tons of clothing every year. In the last four years we’ve been able to donate about $20,000 to the charity partner through collections in our stores and vendor partners. Our guys get behind it. We put a barrel in every store, we start advertising in late October. Our radio station partners give us a lot of added value to get the word out and get the donations in. We have people who knit and crochet clothes, we have people mailing stuff in from California and New York, all to help this clothing drive. It is part of our DNA and we believe in it. It gives us credibility.


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