Case Study

Building the contemporary automotive retail experience


Partner: Birchwood Automotive Group

Our Role: Brand strategy and marketing

We first partnered with Birchwood in 2018 to reposition their business. Our work carved out a new category within the Automotive Retail Industry with Birchwood Automotive Group as the leader. We continue to work with Birchwood as a strategic partner.

Government regulations and Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) dictate a lot of what dealerships can and can’t do, causing large automotive retail groups like Birchwood to remain unchanged. Today, dealerships conduct business as they always have, while the world and consumer expectations leave them behind.

The Problem

Birchwood was looking to stay relevant in an industry that was being impacted by the digital world. Although Birchwood held dominant market share, new and different types of competitors were disrupting the automotive industry while OEM guidelines were increasingly restricting what dealerships could do. Birchwood was looking for a partner to help them stay relevant to their customers and competitive in their market.

Some new competitors were smaller in scale and able to move quickly using digital-first strategies to build connections. And then there were new types of competitors, aggregator websites, like Autotrader. These platforms were delivering valuable information to customers before they even visited a dealership.

Birchwood needed to pivot in order to stay relevant against both smaller more agile competitors and large online aggregators that were dominating the customer journey.

Birchwood Automotive Group

Birchwood Automotive Group is the largest automotive dealership group in Manitoba, Canada. With 18 dealerships, Birchwood has over 55 years of experience in the automotive industry.

In order to start working toward a solution for Birchwood, we developed a deep understanding of the automotive retail industry and how global trends were impacting this specific market.

Research, Insights & the Audience


Our work started by researching how audiences perceived Birchwood and even more so, how they perceived the auto buying, servicing and selling experiences.

Audience perception

Insight #1: Connect with a younger demographic.

When we surveyed Manitoba consumers, Birchwood led as the most recognized auto dealer in the province and their general recall was good in their market even outpacing some OEMs.

But, the automotive group’s recall was particularly strong with one age group, 45-54 year olds. This signaled they were losing relevance with a younger audience which would negatively impact their business in the future.

Perception of Leadership

In perceived leadership compared against competitor dealerships, Birchwood tops the list and nearly doubles their closest competitor. (Consumer survey conducted by Brandish)

Age distribution is relatively even across age groups for Birchwood’s perception of leadership. (Consumer survey conducted by Brandish)

Birchwood’s definition

Insight #2: Birchwood’s positioning was focused internally.

Birchwood was focused internally, meaning they failed to pay attention to the people who mattered most, their customers. Instead, they were more focused on their employees and financial performance.

This internal emphasis left a gap in communication with potential customers. In order to be relevant, Birchwood needed to clearly define their position and make it customer-centric.


The market

Insight #3: No differentiation from their competitors.

There were no defining factors differentiating Birchwood Automotive Group from competitors. Birchwood was relying on the OEM to dictate the experience created at each dealership along with the aging Birchwood brand perception.

All dealerships, not just Birchwood, were relying on this, too. Customers weren’t recognizing or separating the Birchwood brand from their competition because nothing about this experience was offering them anything different.

Without a clear and focused brand definition, audiences were left to fill in the gaps. Birchwood was missing the opportunity to create meaningful brand experiences for their customers.

Understanding the automotive retail industry

Insight #4: The industry is ready for disruption

We’re all familiar with the vehicle-buying experience, ripe with tropes and negotiation pain-points. Consumers have now changed the way they shop for their next vehicle by starting their purchasing journey online rather than at the dealership.

This created a new type of customer Birchwood had no connection with. It also meant less people were walking through their dealerships’ doors.

Although Birchwood was attempting to adapt to the new digital landscape, their digital marketing capabilities needed to be refined and focused.

Stacy’s car-buying journey included over 900 digital touch points in a 3-month period

71% Occurred on mobile

139 Google searches

14 Youtube videos

89 Images

69 Dealer Interactions

186 Manufacturer interactions

Explored brands

x 14

Considered brands

x 6

Brands-decided between

x 2

The digital world has no boundaries

Dealerships were no longer dealing with local competitors anymore. Now, customers had access to dealerships across the country. Local and national competitors were challenging the auto group’s visibility through search engines.

Digital marketing reporting delivers actionable insights

With digital marketing, an advertiser can report what ads are driving traffic and leads. This data can inform future ad spends ensuring advertising dollars are creating conversions.

It’s hard to determine the actual traffic and leads generated by traditional ad spends, for example print advertisements.

By re-focusing Birchwood’s ad spend to digital, we would gather actionable data that would help us refine Birchwood’s marketing tactics leading to new marketing opportunities, for example personalization and accurate reporting.

A new kind of competitor: Aggregator Websites

Insight #5: The automotive retail industry is becoming more competitive

Dealerships were now in competition with a new type of competitor —aggregator websites. Aggregators collected data about all vehicles being sold in Manitoba and compared prices and features for consumers. Now consumers didn’t have to conduct their own comparison shopping, they could check out an aggregator website, like Autotrader, which was doing all the research for them. Aggregator websites were dominating customer attention.

The Challenge


Birchwood Automotive Group needed to reposition their brand by shifting their focus externally on their customers. By doing so, Birchwood would ultimately differentiate themselves from their competition. Our challenge was to transform Birchwood into a customer-focused, purpose-driven brand.

Our brand strategy needed to:

Create the Birchwood Experience

There was no differentiation between the Birchwood experience and the one their competitors were offering. By creating an experience that was unique to Birchwood, the automotive group would automatically set themselves apart.

Customize the experience

Although OEM guidelines restrict Birchwood from owning and cultivating the entire experience, Birchwood still needed to customize their experience, while meeting their obligations to the OEM.

Build the experience online

The Birchwood experience needed to be consistent across all communication touchpoints. This included digital.

Understand the contemporary automotive customer

To build a great experience, we needed to understand the contemporary automotive customer’s needs and motivations. Birchwood had the opportunity to cater its brand experience directly to this audience.

Build a retail brand

As consumers move away from visiting dealerships, brand will play a critical role when looking to engage consumers.

Customer Experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator by the year 2020.

(Walker, 2013 "Customers 2020: A Progress Report")

Customers now expect a similar brand experience across all channels. A well-defined experience across all communication touchpoints will differentiate Birchwood from competitor dealerships.

Define Birchwood’s target audiences and map each audiences’ car-buying journey:

Birchwood is not actively participating in the ever-expanding pre-sales experience, which is now a fundamental part of the customer buying journey. Our goal was to learn more about the Contemporary Automotive Customer and how this audience group could be further segmented in order to further personalize our communications.

Brand Strategy, Identity & Campaign


Brand Strategy - Building an identifiable experience

The first step towards creating a purpose-driven brand was building a customer-centric retail experience.

The Birchwood brand needed a theme in order to unify all communications and ensure their value offering answered what consumers wanted from their vehicle buying experience.

Developing a brand theme

To determine Birchwood’s brand theme, we asked ourselves two questions:

1. What does Birchwood deliver?
2. What do people want?

Birchwood delivers choice

After evaluating the automotive group and its offerings, we understood they provided a variety of products and services. They offered choice to their customers.

Birchwood owns 18 dealerships with 22 brands including luxury brands that other dealerships did not. The auto group also supported customers through the complete auto lifecycle from buying to owning, parts and servicing, to customers ultimately purchasing their next vehicle with the ability to trade-in their old vehicle.

Birchwood gives you a complete auto life-cycle.

Giving the people what they want

Our research revealed the number one factor (other than price) that frustrated consumers during their buying experience was the in-person sales experience. People wanted an experience where they felt comfortable and in control.

What frustrates you the most about buying a vehicle?

20%15%10%5%SalesmanNothingMoneyPushy Sales PeopleYouExpensive5.2%4.3%3.2%1.7%1.4%18.8%12.3%Price

(Consumer survey conducted by Brandish)

Retalize the car buying experience

A good retail experience includes:

• Relevant selection and options
• Great customer service
• Able to adapt and anticipate needs
• Available and responsive to customers
• Knowledgeable
• Innovative in delivery of products & services

Considering all of these factors, we determined Birchwood’s theme should be helpful.

Brand theme: Helpful

Birchwood offers the best auto buying and owning experience in Manitoba because they’re focused on enhancing customer satisfaction while having the largest inventory in their regional market supported by a comprehensive suite of additional automotive services.

Birchwood offers a complete automotive lifecycle experience.

This theme worked because:

• It was simple enough to be interpreted and adopted across a complex organization with multiple brand layers. These layers included the overarching auto group brand and individual dealerships all while meeting OEM regulations.
• People expect the retail experience to be helpful.
• The focus shifted to the customer.
• This theme provides endless opportunities to expand and innovate. It also builds off an existing trend in the automotive industry that hasn’t been widely adopted yet.

But, saying a brand is helpful isn’t enough. Birchwood needed to show they were helpful. Here’s Birchwood’s tangible value offering for their customers.

A Better Auto Buying Experience

Brand Platform

  • Messaging:


  • Birchwood

    Who we are

  • Helpful

    The Focus

  • Birchwood offers the best buying and owning experience in Manitoba. We focus on enhanced customer satisfaction paired with the largest inventory in the province and offering additional automotive services.

    What we do

  • A better Auto Experience.

    What is the clear advantage to the customer

  • Experience is Everything

    A tagline that summarizes value

Value Proposition & Brand Story

Buying or leasing a vehicle can be a complicated process with so many brands, options and features to choose from, and knowing who to trust to keep your vehicle properly serviced can pose even more questions. That’s why Birchwood is dedicated to creating a better auto experience.

Now, we needed a concise statement that combined these two principles so customers could clearly identify the Birchwood brand.

Experience is Everything

Statement of Claim:

This statement summarizes how Birchwood defines value. It also reflects what auto buying customers are looking for.

Experience is Everything communicates:

  • The experience of buying or leasing a car from Birchwood.

  • The experience of having the vehicle you desire.

  • The experience of having your car serviced with Birchwood.

  • The experience Birchwood has after 50 years in business.

Developing a naming structuring for a complex brand:

With a variety of dealerships and services, Birchwood needed a naming system that was consistent across all their different offerings while adhering to strict OEM guidelines. This would determine how Birchwood’s offerings would be named and ensure the brand started to unify all of its offerings.

  • Brand Name


  • Business Name

    Birchwood Automotive Group

The Audience

Customers were the cornerstone to crafting a purpose driven brand. We created a target archetype for the automotive retail industry that would help communicate what these consumers were looking for and how Birchwood could deliver this experience.

Target Brand Archetype: The Contemporary Autobuying Consumer

These individuals want to feel in control when they buy, service or sell their vehicles. Contemporary car shoppers are looking for every opportunity to level the playing field. They’re impatient and don’t easily trust, but they will gravitate to those who are providing new and innovative ways of helping them obtain their goals.

The Contemporary Auto Customer Needs:

  • Customer needs:

    Expected experience:

  • A way to get quick response to their queries

    The experience must be accessible.

  • Access to knowledge and insights

    The experience must be informative.

  • To be in control of the process

    The experience must be empowering.

  • A good selection of choices and options.

    A good selection of choices and options.

This is what the Birchwood experience should sound like:

  • Expected experience:

    Sounds like:

  • Accessible

    “Book your service appointment online.”

  • Informative

    “Get the value of your current vehicle.”

  • Empowering

    “Buy the vehicle you want.”

  • Comprehensive

    “With 18 dealerships and 22 brands, we’ll help you find the right vehicle.”

Brand Identity

Building on the strength and simplicity of the brand strategy, the Birchwood visual identity system needed to be flexibly adopted and leveraged across the automotive group’s diverse offerings.

74% Of people believed the Birchwood logo still worked with a contemporary audience

(Consumer survey conducted by Brandish)

The Birchwood Logo

The Birchwood name is strong, well-established, and carries goodwill in the marketplace. This brand equity can be leveraged to enhance marketing performance in a number of different ways across the customer journey.

Identity for a large and complex organization:

• Parent Brand Automotive Group
• 3 Primary Service Groups (Buy, Service, Sell)
• 3 Target Personas
• 4 Experience Principles
• 22 Automotive Brands
• 18 Dealerships
• 2 Collision Centers
• 3 Special Finance locations

We assessed the logo and determined that the logo should be refined rather than reinvented. This would capitalize on Birchwood’s positive reputation. By refining their classic logo, we would unify a large, complex organization with an already recognizable symbol.

Transitioning the logo to the digital logo


Birchwood Logo

Developing a bold colour system:

With a bold colour palette, Birchwood could visually separate their brand from competitors. It also hinted to consumers that they were doing things differently.


Birchwood colour system

Creating a pattern system inspired by the road

We developed a pattern system that took cues straight from the road. This pattern system highlighted parts of the Birchwood logomark that communicated road like patterns. We translated these patterns into our design materials which made the brand materials feel directly connected to the driving experience.


Birchwood pattern system

Brand Hierarchy

• It was simple enough to be interpreted and adopted across a complex organization with multiple brand layers. These layers included the overarching auto group brand and individual dealerships all while meeting OEM regulations.
• People expect the retail experience to be helpful.
• The focus shifted to the customer.
• This theme provides endless opportunities to expand and innovate. It also builds off an existing trend in the automotive industry that hasn’t been widely adopted yet.

This system will also address and manage different OEM guidelines that could restrict naming and design elements.

Tier 1:BirchwoodTier 2:Fixed OperationsTier 3:ManufacturersBirchwoodSub-BrandsFlexibleBrandsInflexibleBrands

Marketing Strategy & Execution

creating the

Our marketing strategy would position Birchwood as market leader, while refining and growing their internal marketing capabilities.

Marketing insights

A good reputation to build from

The Birchwood name is well-recognized and widely searched for. In conjunction with its good reputation, this brand equity can be leveraged to enhance marketing performance across the customer journey.

Capitalize and promote Birchwood’s extensive inventory

The auto group has an extensive inventory of vehicles, both new and used, presenting a significant opportunity to further optimize search visibility.

High Search Visibility for dealership searches

The auto group has strong search visibility, out-ranking their competitors across the majority of ‘dealership’ focused keywords and search phrases. Birchwood also has more branded searches than all of their competitors.

Mar 26Apr 230%10%20%30%Birchwood Auto Group19.22%Murray Auto Group5.65%Crown Auto Group0.36%

*Based on an analysis of visibility across 100+ ‘dealership’ focused keywords.

The Birchwood website was underutilized

The website offered users a limited opportunity to explore and engage with content beyond inventory.

Mobile Optimization

With over 70% of searches happening on mobile, it’s key to have a fast and responsive website. The majority of dealership websites are missing best practices and potentially losing a significant amount of visitors due to slow load times and unfriendly user experiences.

Previous Birchwood Nissan website

Loading time on 3G: poor

Visitor loss (due to loading time)

Build for search visibility

Updating the Birchwood website would allow us to employ best practices to increase searchability.

Understanding the customer journey

Automotive customers are starting their buying journey before they visit a dealership. They research, cost compare, read reviews and narrow down their purchasing choices online without ever speaking to a salesperson. It was critical that we broke down the customer journey.


Understanding different types of customers and their motivations

1. The First Timer

I don’t know where to start and I need help…

These cost-conscious first time car buyers are looking for a fuel-efficient make and model. For the majority of this group, their decision to purchase a vehicle is triggered by some kind of life event – like moving, getting a new job or getting a pet.


Access to a lot information

So that they feel they are making informed decisions along their purchasing journey.

An omni-channel experience

So that they have the opportunity to engage on the channel they feel most comfortable with.

Social proof

So that they can relate to others who have gone through the same process before them.

A helpful dealership experience

So that they don’t feel alienated or embarrassed when asking a lot of questions.

2. The Loyalist

I’m considering a new vehicle and I know where I’m going first

These experienced vehicle buyers are older and typically less likely to have kids. Even though they are brand loyal, they still considered at least one other brand. This group also uses fewer resources for their research with the dealership website being the primary research channel.


An ongoing relationship

So that they feel a sense of loyalty to the dealership they have chose to do business with.

Exceptional Service

So that they feel their needs have been prioritized as a loyal customer.

Quick Response Times

So that they don’t feel the need to look elsewhere because they haven’t been prioritized.

A personalized dealership experience

So that they view the dealership they chose to do business with as a trusted partner.

3. The Switcher

I know what I want and will find the best deal

These experienced car buyers have the ‘comparison shopper’ mentality. They are typically looking for SUVs, trucks, or luxury models and cross-shop up to 4 brands on average. This group has a lower reliance on family and friends and view the dealer as more of a facilitator as opposed to a trusted partner.


A seamless digital experience

So that they feel they can access all of the information they need while doing their research.

Comparison and review focused content

So that they can review and compare different makes, models, options, and pricing.

Quick response times

So that they feel confident when comparing the response times of other dealerships.

An informative dealership experience

So that they feel they are being educated and informed—not sold.

Different perspectives create new opportunities

By understanding each type of customer, we can cater our digital and content marketing to each specific customer group. This ensures we are targeting customers in different age groups and sets up Birchwood for continued growth by building a connection with a younger demographic.



What our work achieved

People-first focused

For the first time in the organization’s history, Birchwood embarked on a rebranding project which focused the entire organization around a brand platform focused on the customer experience.

Brand unification

Historically, all brand, marketing and experience strategies were articulated through Birchwood’s dealerships and the parent brand functioned as an operating company. With a new brand strategy in play, the Birchwood parent brand is in a position to contribute to and lead the brand, marketing, and experience strategies, pushing value down to the dealership network.

Informed decision-making

The automotive group is now focused on actively understanding the needs, wants, motivations, intent, and concerns of their target audience and using those insights to form brand, marketing, and experience strategies. We evaluate these strategies and refine based on reporting data and our up-to-date audience insights.

Elevated performance

Transitioned the marketing environment from largely promotional and awareness driven to a strategic environment focused on addressing the needs of the car buyer and helping guide them through their buyer journey, resulting in more qualified prospects and elevated marketing performance across all channels.

Internal sophistication

Focused on recalibrating and developing internal marketing and marketing support/production capabilities to support the brand, marketing and experience strategy.

Unprecedented growth

In 2020, Birchwood saw significant increases in their YoY retail sales performance and market share.

Birchwood Timeline

our journey

Our partnership with Birchwood started in 2018. We continue to work with the automotive group to this day. This timeline highlights our partnership’s key milestones.



Research & Assessment

Birchwood begins to work with Brandish on a comprehensive brand audit spanning the entire auto group and all of its subsidiaries.

Brand strategy

Our work on a new brand strategy begins and the focus starts to shift towards customer centricity. We also start developing the infrastructure in order to implement a true omni-channel retail and customer experience.

Brand launch

Birchwood’s “Experience is Everything” brand is launched into market with a city-wide, multi-channel brand launch campaign.

Marketing strategy

A new marketing strategy is developed that activates the Birchwood parent brand to drive awareness and traffic through to the dealership’s network.



Building internal capabilities

Our agency supports and develops Birchwood’s internal capabilities through improving the auto group’s competencies to support their own brand, digital marketing and their brand experience strategy.

Organization-wide brand integration

Through a series of internal employee focused sessions, the new brand is integrated throughout the entire organization’s 1000+ employees, aligning the entire team around the “Experience is Everything” brand platform.

Record-breaking sale

Birchwood’s largest retail sales event of the year is re-conceptualized and re-launched utilizing the foundational principles from the brand strategy. The 2019 Year End Sale reports record numbers and drives large YoY increases in awareness, engagement, lead volume and unit sales.



Global Pandemic

Brandish works closely with Birchwood to develop a COVID-19 Response Strategy and framework, which is utilized to help the organization manage their communication and brand strategy through the pandemic.

COVID-19 Response Strategy

As a result of a strong brand strategy and marketing framework, Birchwood was able to successfully respond to the pandemic environment. The autogroup was mandated to shut down for one month during the initial phase of the pandemic. We worked with Birchwood to create a COVID-19 Response Strategy that shifted their customer experience and marketing digitally. We launched the Buy From Home campaign which allowed Birchwood to still connect and curate an experience for their customers remotely. This set up Birchwood for success when they were able to open their brick-and-mortar locations again. Once open, Birchwood hit record YoY retail sales and captured valuable market share in the months following the first wave.


We create an omni-channel retail and customer experience sub-brand called “Birchwood You Drive”. This brand helps drive the organization’s digital retail strategy.


Website (Birchwood brand) generated 36% more total leads in YoY in 2020.


Birchwood spent 20% less on marketing cross-group in 2020.

During Birchwood’s annual Year End Sale, all channel traffic to increased +203% YoY.


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