When it comes to branding, “That’s a good camper, PawPaw,” said by a child kicking a tire is instantly recognized by most people in Mississippi, as well as neighboring states.
The success of the branding can be shown in the numbers: PawPaw’s Camper City, the largest RV dealership in the state, has approximately $50 million in annual sales and 120 employees.
“Really, the slogan has taken on a life of its own,” said PawPaw’s spokesman Rod Montz. “For example, people will say, ‘That’s a good TV show, PawPaw.’ That is flattering to us, but what it also does is create an image in the consumer’s mind. A lot of times growth has to do with setting a course, and staying with it. From an advertising standpoint, we wanted to create an image consistent with the way we do business, which is family-friendly and folksy. By sticking with it, we have branded ourselves pretty well. People know our slogan generally from Pensacola , Fla., to Lafayette, La., up to Memphis, Tenn.”
The slogan actually came out of “the mouths of babes.” The original tire kicker, Christy Herring, granddaughter of company founder H.B. “Dub” Herring, was filming a commercial for one of Herring’s automobile dealerships. Herring told his granddaughter, who was about four at the time, to say, “That a good car,” after kicking its tire. She responded to him saying, “That a good car, PawPaw.”
“Like a lot of TV commercials, you can just accidentally capture magic,” Herring said. “That commercial ran, and got a lot of positive response. We did similar commercials with the other grandkids, and it took on a life of its own. People began to expect us to have a child kicking a tire. That began in about 1989. It was just a few years after kicking car tires that we started kicking RV tires in 1994 after PawPaw’s Camper City opened its first store in Picayune.”
Dub Herring said his mother used to say, “You have to stick to your knitting.” Herring stuck with his business and saw it grow tremendously over the years.
“I think if you work hard and play by the rules, the American system works for most people,” said Herring, who has four automobile dealerships in Picayune in addition to PawPaw’s Camper City outlets in Picayune, Jackson and Gulfport. “I have tried a lot of fancy things from professional advertisers from out of state. But that never seemed to work for me. So I decided to just be myself. I love kids. I think it shows. It is hard to hide your true feelings. When you get on TV, the camera brings out what is inside. I think people can relate to it because we all love family.”
TV commercials are PawPaw’s Camper City’s primary form of advertising, but the business also does radio, newspaper, outdoor and Internet advertising. Billboards are common along the I-10 corridor, as well as on I-65, I-59 and U.S. 49.
Another key to success is focusing on service after the sale.
“What we are looking for is long-term relationships,” Montz said. “We pride ourselves in developing and maintaining lifelong relationships with our customers. We sell products that are in demand. We deal with high-caliber manufacturers of RVs, and we back up the sales with quality and treating people right.”
People drive a great distance and in some cases even fly to get good deals at PawPaw’s Camper City. Prices are generally cheaper in the South. Montz said customers from elsewhere in the U.S. can drive or fly to Mississippi, stay and vacation while they are here, and still save thousands.
“People will come from a greater distance to buy an RV than they would a car because the stakes are higher,” Montz said. “The supply of product is far fewer than it is in the car world. The availability of choices is more limited. You might pass three Ford dealerships in 50 miles. But in the RV world, there might not be another Holiday Rambler dealer in a hundred miles or more. If you have less supply and the stakes are higher, people will drive 150 miles or even fly in, especially if you are talking about very large RVs in the range $300,000.”
PawPaw’s also attracts the snow bird crowd. RVers who winter in the South may drop by for service and end up deciding to trade up for a new RV.
You would think gas prices at record highs would put a dent in the RV sales market. But Montz said, strangely enough, gas prices haven’t really affected sales. He believes that is because someone who can afford an RV that might cost between $100,000 to $300,000 doesn’t have to sweat paying an extra $60 per month for gasoline. Oftentimes, RVers don’t actually put that many road miles on every day. They will drive to a park, stay a week or two, and then move on to another park.
Montz said if the gas prices doubled tomorrow, it might have an impact. But at the present levels, people have just accepted the gasoline costs as the price of having an RV.
The RV lifestyle for retirement has been popular for many years with World War II veterans and their spouses. There had been concern in the RV industry that sales would diminish with the Baby Boomer generation because the lifestyle might not be as attractive to them as their parents. But that hasn’t yet been a problem.
“The Baby Boom generation is massive,” he said. “A huge number of people are turning RV age every day, so we see nothing but growth. We are perfectly positioned to take advantage of the Baby Boom generation retiring, wanting to see the country, and having the independence of being able to go where they want to go.”
In their parent’s generation, it was common for children to settle nearby. Now, a family with three kids might find them scattered widely across the country. So the parents gas up the RV, and head to visit one set of grandkids for a few weeks, and then another. The RV enables them to maintain family relationships without imposing by staying in the homes of their children or other relatives.
Montz said often when retirees have an empty nest, they will opt to downsize to a smaller home or condo. And with the equity left from selling their home, they invest in an RV and hit the road. Part of the appeal can be not just the places, but the people they meet on their journeys.
“It is a great mobile community that provides a social life between like-minded people doing similar things together,” Montz said. “And this can be done from the comfort of their home that can be moved.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.