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The Vital Role of Open APIs and Data Connectivity to the Future Success of Dealerships with Joe Brown

  • December 14, 2023
19 min read
The Vital Role of Open APIs and Data Connectivity to the Future Success of Dealerships with Joe Brown

Ilana Shabtay
VP of Marketing, Fullpath

Joe Brown
CMO, Frank Leta Auto Group

Joe Brown is the CMO at Frank Leta Auto Group. He’s a third generation dealer bringing years of automotive legacy to the position along with a knack for innovation. Joe is also a member of Auto Genius where he collaborates with industry leaders to redefine digital marketing in the automotive landscape.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Joe’s lifelong connection to the automotive industry
  • What it is like running the marketing for all 5 stores in the automotive group
  • The importance of holding dealership vendors accountable
  • How the sales team at the Frank Leta Auto Group is embracing AI
  • Joe’s predictions for the automotive industry in 2024. 

In this episode…

When vendor A doesn’t want to communicate with vendor B, all it does is create frustration for the dealer. 

Siloed data is not a new issue in automotive – but as new AI solutions come to market, siloed data is creating even more problems than before. The reality is, AI is only as good as the data it is trained on. When implementing AI at your dealership, you need to be able to access all of your own owned data in order to get the most out of that technology. The key to making this happen is for vendors to begin supporting open APIs which would allow your dealership’s data sources to work harmoniously together and be leveraged fully by your AI solutions. 

In the latest episode of InsideAuto, Joe Brown, CMO at Frank Leta Auto Group and Ilana Shabtay discussed the critical role of connected data in future dealership success and the importance of dealers holding their vendors to a higher standard when it comes to offering open APIs is so vital to the fight to eliminate siloed dealership data. 

Resources Mentioned: 

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by Fullpath (formerly AutoLeadStar).

Fullpath is the automotive industry’s leading customer data and experience platform (CDXP).

Fullpath enables dealers to turn their first-party data into lifelong customers by unifying siloed data sources and leveraging that data to create exceptional, hyper-personalized customer experiences.

To learn more, visit www.fullpath.com

Episode Transcript:

Ilana Shabtay 

Ilana Shabtay here, host of Inside Auto podcast, where we interview top dealers, GMs, marketers, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders in and out of the automotive industry. But before we introduce today’s guest, this episode is sponsored by Fullpath.com. Fullpath is the automotive industry leading customer data and experience platform CDXP. Fullpath enables dealers to turn their first party data into lifelong customers by unifying siloed data sources and leveraging that data to create exceptional hyper-personalized customer experiences. To learn more, visit fullpath.com.

All right, today we’re welcoming Joe Brown. Joe, how are you?

Joe Brown

Great how are you doing?

Ilana Shabtay 

I am doing well, looking forward to the conversation. Quick intro for you, Joe is the CMO at Frank Leta Auto Group. He’s third generation dealer bringing years of automotive legacy to the position and a knack for innovation. We’ll talk a lot about that today. Jack is also, Jack and Joe, Joe is also the, an auto genius member and we have so many Auto Genius members here on the podcast. So I’m excited to have another one talk about what the community’s done for you, especially from a marketing perspective. So welcome. I know you’ve done so much in your career, so I’m looking forward to talking about it today.

Joe Brown 

Awesome, yeah, so happy to be here. Thanks for having me on. Joe Brown, I’ve been with the, not Jack Brown, I don’t know of any Jack Browns, Joe Brown, the one and only Joe Brown. I’ve been in automotive pretty much my whole life. It’s a family business, so my grandfather founded it in 1965, started with Honda motorcycles. So before Honda even had an automobile, he was a Honda motorcycle dealer.

Ilana Shabtay 

Yeah, of course. Joe Brown. Oh, so that’s not Jack Brown. Okay, thank you, thank you. Ha ha ha.

Joe Brown 

Once they introduced the automobile, he was the original Midwest Honda dealer. And Honda has been a great brand to us. In 85, we opened up the Acura store. Pretty later, we’ve just grown from there. So now we’ve worked at five stores across the group. Yeah.

Ilana Shabtay 

And so you do all the marketing operations for every single store. So tell us a little bit about what that’s been like. I’d love to learn also any new things that you implemented specifically in 2023 that worked really well, that you’re looking to continue into 2024.

Joe Brown

Yep, yep. So I’m the chief marketing officer for the group. So I oversee all the marketing efforts in between for the vendors and dealership, holding them accountable. Something new we’ve tried this year that’s kind of out of the box that I don’t know many other dealers that are doing it, is we put a really big focus on getting organic Facebook tags for our dealership. So a lot of dealers have a really good presence on Google, they’ve got thousands of reviews. Most dealers have like a 4.5 and above star rating. So after a certain point, I feel like at all the competitive advantage of having a good presence on Google just disappears when everybody’s just as good essentially. So something I wanted to put a focus on was organically on Facebook, having the customer tell their network about what a great experience they had at our dealership. So the customer takes the picture, write to caption, posts it to their personal profile and tags the dealership. So now their whole profile, their whole network is seeing that they got a new car, they had a great experience, they’re smiling in front of the car and it points to our dealership. It’s not frankly to talking about how great we are. It’s this customer, it’s more authentic and it’s different than what I think most other dealers are doing. So we’ve been putting it, it’s been a strong focus of ours for 2023 and it was a tough rollout, early months we were lucky to get a couple tags having, you know, it’s hard to do. And that’s why I think most people don’t do it, right? You can ask for it.

Ilana Shabtay 

Yeah, I was going to say, what’s that conversation like with the customer or how are you getting the customer to do that? Because even if they had a great experience, I feel like it’s like just to actually open up their Facebook and write it is a whole task in and of itself.

Joe Brown

I’ll just say you’d be amazed at what a $5 Amazon gift card will buy you. So, I read initially…

Ilana Shabtay 

Got it. Basically instead of incentivizing to put like a Google review up, you can incentivize really to do whatever is your mission at that given time. So that makes a lot of sense. Hey, I would do a lot for a $5 Amazon gift card, okay?

Joe Brown 

At the onset, for sure, yeah. We were having like swag bags, so it was like a tote bag and a tumbler and a charge cable and a blanket. So it was like $30 worth of swag that we were offering customers. Pretty soon we found out that $5 gift card does the same for a customer. So incentivizing the customer and also salespeople need to be motivated as well. But early on we would get a couple across the whole group, so maybe two at one store or one at another store. Kept focusing on it month after month. It would grow. I think our all-time high, we had over 100 tags across the group with one store having I think 42 tags in one month. So you get these salespeople ignite their competitive spirit. Yes, yes. So I’ve got bi-weekly emails that go out to all the stores.

Ilana Shabtay 

Do you have competitions between the stores as well? Yeah.

Joe Brown

and a little ranking sheet, you know, whoever’s in first is at the top of the board. And it just lights a fire under the sales staff and they get excited. And it’s really rewarding when you’re looking at the tag and you see that it got, you know, 100 plus engagements and comments of other customers saying, oh yeah, I bought a Frank Lita and had a really great experience. They’re the best. So I think that that’s something that we’re doing different that I haven’t seen really any other dealers doing. And we plan to continue doing that in 2024 as well.

Ilana Shabtay

Awesome. Now that’s like more on the organic side brand side, which I love any AI implementations GPT Anything on the like generative AI front that you feel like frankly does gonna invest in 2024 If not have already because I feel like you know, that’s gonna be a big focus for 2024, especially in automotive

Joe Brown

For sure, yeah. Everybody’s talking about AI and you see more and more vendors. Exactly, yeah. More and more vendors are integrating AI into their solution, which I think is really, really great. We’ve got DriveCentric as our CRM. They’ve got AI built into it and it just keeps getting better and better. We use it internally a little bit as well, sometimes writing captions for our social media channels, having ChatGPT assist with that internally and all the vendor partners, I think you’re going to see more and more vendors embracing AI to really enhance their offerings.

Ilana Shabtay 

Yeah, I think from a marketing perspective, it will probably be the first place. But I think even on an operating level, dealerships will start incorporating AI, even if it’s just like, you know, review all calls, listen to all calls and monitor calls and send those to the sales managers every morning with like bullet points and or, you know, highlight words or tell the AI you want to know anything that has to do with like, I don’t know, any nasty words for complaints will come up, you know, to the top of your list, whatever it whatever rules you.

Joe Brown 

Yeah, so many possibilities.

Ilana Shabtay 

Yeah, so many possibilities. I mean, I think by 2024, by the end of 2024, most dealerships will be operating in some capacity with that layer of AI.

Joe Brown 

I think you’re right. Yeah. I think initially it was a little intimidating, but now almost everybody you talk to has touched AI in some way, either internally or with a vendor partner.

Ilana Shabtay

Yeah. And we’ve briefly discussed this previously, but your sales team actually really embraces the AI that helps, you know, that is embedded in their CRM. I know, I really have spoken to other dealers that there’s a lot of hesitation and the sales team often doesn’t want any of their customers to be touched without, you know, them looking over it first. And I really appreciate that your sales team is really embracing the fact that this should empower them and just like, if anything, accelerate their sales because it’s almost like having an assistant working in the background. That’s great.

Joe Brown 

They love it. Yeah. I mean, we’ve been using some type of AI for a long time. We used Conversica early on, so they were used to having some assistance communicating with the customers and it just gets better and better. When we switched over to Dryacentric, we named it Gloria Lita was the name of our AI. At the time, Gloria was really big in St. Louis. The blues were doing really well and Gloria was the sound that everybody was listening to. So very topical.

But we’d start getting people asking when they come in store to talk to Gloria Lita thinking, oh, I know Mr. Lita. I didn’t know we had a grandchild named Gloria. And they’d, oh, that’s not really a real person. That’s, yeah. But I think, yeah, internally, right. Yeah, I’ll come down and say hi. The staff’s embraced it. I think customers really don’t mind it as long as it’s providing value, right?

Ilana Shabtay 

Yeah, yeah, totally. And I think that especially the rise of generative AI is providing a lot of value now. So that’s nice. And now when it comes to challenges that you foresee either in your specific stores because of your specific market and or you know, whatever, however the economy might be affecting that region or, you know, bigger picture challenges for automotive industry. What are you predicting for 2024 so that we can sort of stay ahead of the game, figure out solutions before these challenges hit us in the face? Because automotive the past four years has just been, wow, whirlwind of all sorts of challenges.

Joe Brown 

It’s been wild, wild ride. Yeah. I think you’re going to see more, better access to the data. You know, the dealers have realized the value of first party data and I think they’re owning that data, but they don’t necessarily know what to do with that data. And I think AI goes hand in hand with that, leveraging AI to better activate that data, make it more actionable and get really efficient with your overall marketing strategy.

Ilana Shabtay

I’m very happy you said this because I don’t know if you, well we met at MRC and I don’t know if you were able to catch the Full Path CEO’s keynote, Aharon’s own keynote, but he basically opened by being like, data’s great and we’ve been talking about data all year and I’m so happy but it literally does nothing for you if you can’t actually do anything with it. So I think that AI, like figure it, dealers figuring out, okay, how do I?

Joe Brown 

Correct. Yeah.

Ilana Shabtay 

First of all, have a data strategy, because I don’t think that’s necessarily solved yet. But also do something with it without having to sift through all these lists or have my sales team even worse sift through all these lists. That’s where AI is going to come in and really augment the data strategy and figure out and give dealers a way to really figure out how to use their cleaned, good, owned, like their own owned data. Which, yeah. So I think that’s going to be, I agree, I think that’s going to be big in 2024.

Joe Brown 

Right. Own data, yep.

Ilana Shabtay 

Did you feel like people were talking about that at MRC? I know obviously the keynote was talked a bit about that, but did other sessions touch on that? I didn’t get a chance to go to so many sessions, so I’d love to know your take.

Joe Brown

Yeah, I think AI and better access to the data were big themes. Brian talked about how I think we’re going to see more open APIs because automotive has historically been pretty notorious for not having much communication between vendors, very siloed, which is very frustrating for me as the dealer because it is my data. And when vendor A doesn’t want to play nicely with vendor B, it gets really frustrating. So having open APIs, I think will be. I’m looking forward to that, having the data work more harmoniously together and using AI to really fully leverage it. I think that was the big takeaway for me.

Ilana Shabtay 

Yeah, well, I think you should go out there and petition with all the other dealer CMOs and basically work with vendors that will work with open APIs because it will come from the dealers, meaning I find it extremely frustrating as well that we can only really give dealers the most innovative cutting edge technology if they can actually break down those silos and their softwares can connect, right? Like if you look outside of automotive, Salesforce and HubSpot…biggest competitor, obviously have a two-way API, no doubt, because you’ll have marketers that work out of HubSpot and sales that work out of Salesforce, and they’re not losing their biggest clients over that. So I think if we can have the dealers lead this discussion, we’ll actually get somewhere.

Joe Brown

Right, right. Yeah, it is funny hearing people come from outside of auto with a marketing background. They’re just kind of blown away at how, uh, yeah, silent everything is. So looking very much forward to that future. Hopefully 2024.

Ilana Shabtay

Yes. Blown away.  Where, I mean, the truth is to 2024, cheers to 2024. I do, I am seeing it a little bit more. So that’s the positive.

Joe Brown 

Yeah, I’ve seen that trend and I think it’s going to continue because I think like you said dealers are ultimately going to have to be that voice to ask for it and demand for it and I think that’s where we’re going.

Ilana Shabtay 

Yeah. I mean, my dream would be that if it even came from the manufacturers, meaning, oh, you cannot be a certified provider or you can’t work with us or you can’t get co-op dollars if you’re not using a vendor that doesn’t have an open API and then it just solves everything for us, you know, top down. But, you know, no one’s listening to me. 

Joe Brown 

Right. Yeah, and the manufacturers are getting a lot of that. They’re getting a lot of the data from the dealer. So I think the OEMs I’ve noticed are paying more attention to it. And I mean, they’re, they’re wanting more data from the dealer. And I think in turn, the dealer needs to get more data. I guess just the data playing nicely for everyone across the board internally. Yeah.

Ilana Shabtay 

Yeah, yeah, totally. And then before we sign off here, I do wanna touch a little bit on the auto genius community. I haven’t talked about it a while inside auto podcast, but we have had quite a few other members on as guests. Tell us a little bit about, as a CMO, what’s the benefits? What’s the community like? Just tell us a little bit about your experience. I think it’s just like a great way for marketers to connect in automotive, especially the innovative marketers that I’ve spoken to. So I’d love to hear a little bit about the the experience with the auto genius or AG as they call it. AG. Yeah. Are you an OG AG? Are you an OG? Okay. That’s great. Okay. If Ben, if you’re listening, Kyle, if you’re listening, OG AG.

Joe Brown 

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. AG as we call it. Yep. Such a great community of…pretty close to it. I think I could call myself an OGAG. You know, you interact, so for people that don’t know, AutoGenius is primarily a Slack community of some of the sharpest minds in automotive with a big emphasis on marketing. But it’s a way for everybody to get together and kind of share best practices. Similar to a 20 group, but instead of meeting three times a year, it’s 24-7 Slack channel. It’s very active, I can’t keep up with all the, everything that goes on a daily basis.

But they, you know, how Slack works, you can separate it into different channels. So you can go into a specific channel for whatever your specific interest is. Um, and historically you can just search for, you know, if you’re, if you’re looking at a vendor, we’ve got one called, um, Hey, who’s using, and then you can say who’s using this vendor, and then you’ll get real feedback from real dealers across the country. So you’re not getting any kind of a. Flanted pitch. It’s very honest and, uh, it’s been super helpful for me. I love the community. And then going to MRC, you get to meet some of these people in person. So people that you’ve been interacting with digitally for years sometimes, you get to meet them in person and put a face to the name and it’s really great hanging out. They’re some of the best people that I’ve met in automotive and I’m so happy to be part of the group. I love what they’re doing and it’s just growing and growing and I’m excited to be a part of it.

Ilana Shabtay

Yeah, I agree. Some of the best people I’ve met in automotive are also AG members. Not sure if they’re OG AG, but they probably are. Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing with us today on Inside Auto Podcast. Joe, I’m so happy I got to meet you in person. I hope I get to see you. Again, I said, remind me, did you say you’re going to NADA?

Joe Brown

I am going to be at NADA, looking forward to it. Yeah.

Ilana Shabtay 

Okay, looking forward. So that is where I will see you next. Thanks again for joining us. And if you liked this episode Inside Auto Podcast, insideautopodcast.com, you can find us on all your favorite streaming channels, Spotify, Deezer, Apple, et cetera. Thanks again, Jo.

Joe Brown 

Thank you. And you can find me on LinkedIn. I’m probably the only Joe Brown, right?

Ilana Shabtay 

Yeah, the only one. And if you get confused, maybe you can find him under Jack Brown. I don’t know. I made up that name. That’s gonna be your new nickname now. I don’t know where that came from. Yeah, Joe Brown. Well, Joe Brown, Frank Leta, and you’ll find him.

Joe Brown

Maybe, yeah. I’ll add that nickname or something, sure, yeah. I don’t know, here we are. Joe Brown.

Ilana Shabtay 

Thanks for joining. 

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