Student-Athletes in Cars Getting Washed: Zips’ Innovative Collegiate Sports Approach
Mark joined the podcast to discuss the company’s unique sponsorship category, why college sports is a good fit for the brands’ objectives and how its NIL content series of student-athlete interviews took shape and is seeing results. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: Mark, before we dig into the innovative approach Zips is taking to collegiate partnerships and the NIL space, I’d like to learn a little about the company, especially since it occupies a unique category in sponsorship. Can you give us an overview of the industry and Zips specifically?
Mark: I’m sure that car washing doesn’t jump right to the top of your mind when you hear sports sponsorships and sports marketing!
Zips Car Wash is the third largest and largest privately held car wash in the U.S. We have almost 280 locations across 25 states. We are an express car wash business, which means you drive your car up to the tunnel and we take you through the car wash on tracks. You can then drive around to the side and use our complimentary vacuums, towels and spray bottles.
Jim: What is the strategy behind Zips’ involvement in college sports? What goals and objectives are you achieving through your partnerships?
Mark: First and foremost, it was important to understand where we are. Car washing is relatively young as a retail brand. Car washing has been around for a long time, but big brands haven’t existed. It is similar to the fitness category a decade ago, before Planet Fitness and others came along and established really strong brands. Car washing is a very fragmented landscape. As I mentioned, we are one of the biggest brands, but we felt there was an opportunity to connect with our customers and local fans in a different way. That’s where we started to think about sports marketing.
It really drove off of some of our founder’s beliefs that there is a strong connection between customers in the areas we are in and the sports teams we are now sponsoring. It’s easy to put one and one together when you are in places like Knoxville (Tennessee), Raleigh (North Carolina) and Lexington (Kentucky) and the strong affinity for college sports there.
We wanted to stick out in the sea of sameness in the retail car wash space and become a little bit more meaningful to our customers outside of convenience and value. That was step one.
We know there is a lot of love for the local collegiate sports teams, so this was a way for us not only to build the brand, creating brand recognition and connectivity to a beloved brand like the University of Tennessee, but it also allows us to stretch our ability to create awareness, brand impressions and reach with customers and pull that back to our sites and provide meaningful opportunities such as ticket giveaways for gameday events and co-branded university and Zips swag like rally towels and pom-poms.
Taking a step back, we are a strong player in a relatively young industry. We can use a sponsorship program to grow the brand from an awareness perspective and connect with customers from a local perspective.
Jim: From a user perspective that makes so much sense. My experience is thinking of a car wash as a commodity. I’m going to go in, get the car cleaned and get out. It has never occurred to me that I might have all of the opportunities you are providing as part of the experience, so what a difference-maker that must be.
Mark: If you look at industry data on car washing, customers learn about car washing by driving by or by someone telling them about it. It’s based on convenience and value. What’s the closest car wash to me?
From a retail customer frequency perspective, the typical number of visits is only four to six times per year. We are growing into driving a subscription model for car washing. Those customers visit 2.5 to three times per month. Those are two very different consumer segments, but we want both of them to choose Zips. We can do that with our convenience and our value through the number of locations we have, but when you add on top our ability to connect two things they love—a clean, dry and shiny car with a local sports team like the University of North Carolina—that’s a great place for us to be in the middle of.
Jim: With all that as background, what then is the “origin story” of your relationship with Learfield, the schools where you have an exclusive partnership, and the Car Wash Convos NIL program?
Mark: Taking our founder’s idea a step further, we did some consumer research to understand where to start in terms of which sport or sports? Professional or other level? The research showed our customers leaned toward college sports. That was great for us because you have all the collegiate sports across different seasons. So instead of investing in one NFL season, we could invest in a school like the University of Arkansas and stretch that across all of its collegiate sports seasons. That allows us more flexibility to create great experiences for our customers.
From there it was great conversations with the Learfield team. They have been a great partner with us from day one. We both came into the conversations very open and transparent about what we were trying to get out of it. Being on the same page from the beginning allowed us to create a program that benefited Learfield, the schools, Zips and our customers.
We created a traditional sponsorship solution with all of the in-stadium, print and radio advertising, but have taken it a step further with some unique content creation. Their innovative ideas have matched with our innovative ideas and what we are trying to accomplish. It felt like a partnership from the very first conversation before any contracts were signed.
Jim: Let’s share a little bit more about Car Wash Convos for those who maybe haven’t seen any of the videos.
Mark: We are very proud of Car Wash Convos. It is our first jump into the NIL space. We looked at opportunities to connect with consumers in a meaningful and unique way. We didn’t feel it was right to just have a student athlete standing outside our car wash next to a shiny car giving the traditional advertising thumbs up. We wanted to have a bit more fun and be unexpected with the way we approached it.
We based the series off of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke. We said, “What if we matched up student athletes in a car driving through our tunnel?” The most exciting part of a car wash is when you are in the tunnel. That’s when the magic happens—the sights, sounds, colors and scents. What I love about the series is you get an honest reaction from the student-athletes. Obviously, we have some fun questions prepared to understand who they are as people, their personalities, who they are as student athletes, etc., but you also get the real environment of being in a car wash, which adds some interest and excitement to it.
We have a student-athlete host from the university interview another student athlete from the same university, all dressed in their school swag at one of our local car washes.
Jim: I do love that you use student interviewers. It really adds to the authenticity versus having an older journalist or someone from the corporate communications team. It makes the conversations more natural and probably a bit more fun.
Mark: For sure, it’s not you or me sitting next to them in the car. It’s a peer. It’s a colleague. They’ve been through the same things. They see each other in the hallways and in the athletics department. And they come from the same point of view. We have been fortunate to have a great number of hosts who have come from journalism programs, so it helps them with their career, getting their feet wet. The conversations are real. The follow-up questions are some of the best questions and the best content in the series.
It was interesting that for the first few episodes, the student-athletes who had other NIL deals would ask, “What do you want me to say?” Our response was, “Whatever you want. You don’t have to say Zips. You be you and have fun with it.”
Jim: You’ve stated that year one of the program last year was successful, so it has been expanded to 14 schools and 22 athletes from six of those schools appearing in Car Wash Convos videos for the ’23-’24 academic year. What were the metrics you used to determine success?
Mark: Season one, as we like to call it, had 12 episodes with 12 student-athletes and it went wonderfully for us. We had about four million impressions and two million video views for just the Car Wash Convos series. And the series was just a portion of how we activated. We had all the advertising and the ticket and swag giveaways I mentioned earlier. We also had sponsored events that brought things to life for the local community, such as gameday activities on site at game venues, as well as bringing mascots and cheerleaders to our sites. It was a 360-degree program with well over 30 events locally.
Altogether we had well over 50 million brand impressions, but at the end of the day it also helped us improve our traffic and our sales, as well as our overall brand recognition.
Jim: Selecting which student athletes to work with from the hundreds at each school sounds daunting. I know you work with Opendorse to accomplish that, so can you tell us about how that process works?
Mark: It is a tricky process. We work with Learfield and with Learfield Studios, which helps bring the content to life for us, as well as Opendorse. It is a true team effort.
It’s important for us as a business and a brand that we are aligning with student-athletes that meet our brand values. That’s at the core. We narrow down the athlete roster to have good representation from both male and female student-athletes across the full collegiate year. We don’t just look at major sports like football. We look at the Olympic sports. It’s important for us to have breadth.
The idea is to be storytellers and great stories come from everywhere. Some of the best stories we have are from Olympic sports, where sometimes the stories don’t get told because people focus on football and basketball. It was important for us to go deeper.
Identifying the student-athletes to choose is a meticulous process. As I said, first we want to ensure it is a good brand fit. We look at the background of the student athlete. We look at their social posts and who they are and what their personality is. Then you look at their sport, their season, their performance and what type of stories do they have to tell. Of course we look at their social following, because at the end of the day, that’s how this content gets spread.
So there are two sides to it. First, as people and personalities are they a good fit with who Zips is. And then from a business perspective, how does the story get created and distributed.
Jim: How did you make the decision about which schools would have the Car Wash Convos component of the program?
Mark: It was a little tricky when we started. We began with Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina, primarily because of our density within those markets and how long we have been there. We wanted to make sure we were invested there. And we weren’t sure what was going to come out of it. NIL was extremely new and we wanted to start where we had good penetration and good brand recognition to be able to pull it through and bring it to life.
Also, those are very strong schools with great followings and their sports programs tend to be pretty successful, which keeps them part of the conversation year-round. That is helpful for us.
As we moved into year two, we wanted to expand. The University of Texas was a great addition for us. Our corporate headquarters are in Dallas. We know UT is more than just Austin. It covers all of Texas and beyond. Memphis was a school we added this year from a full primary perspective. And how could we not add the two-time defending college football champions the Georgia Bulldogs?
Jim: Does all of the change currently happening in college sports—things like athletes changing schools through the transfer portal and conference realignment—impact how you execute the program?
Mark: For sure. One of our student athletes from year one transferred soon after we shared the content. While we were extremely excited for that individual, it was challenging for us because now our use of that content changes.
Because we are trying to tell unique stories with Car Wash Convos, we have not brought any student-athletes who have been interviewed back for a second season. We do give ourselves a bit of an out with that, but in the transfer case, we had to change how we used that content over the course of the year given that they transferred out of the university.
Jim: Much of the NIL activity we’ve seen in the first couple of years has been by brands that don’t also have a relationship with the school. But as the Car Wash Convos example shows, there’s real synergy in having partnerships with both athletes and their schools. Do you think we will see more college athletics sponsors leveraging and activating their partnerships with NIL deals and content in a similar way to how Zips is doing it?
Mark: Yes and no. Some bigger brands don’t necessarily have to. A bigger brand can pick and choose where to invest its marketing spend and how it wants to tell stories and bring content to life.
Medium-size and smaller brands like us, 100 percent you will see more of the integration you are talking about. The connective tissue we get from linking the advertising, event and IP assets we get through the university with a content series about storytelling pulls it all together and helps smaller brands become a little bit bigger, more meaningful and more beloved.
Some big brands don’t have to do that, but for a medium-size or smaller brand there is a lot of benefit by doing that. People are busy today. You have to have multiple touchpoints to let them know what is going on for it to set in. For a smaller brand that is trying to drive frequency for someone who uses a car wash four to six times a year, it’s important for us to be the brand they think about when they are ready to go. That’s why that connective tissue of being part of all aspects of the university and the NIL piece makes sense.
Jim: With Season 2 of Car Wash Convos underway, how is it performing so far?
Mark: The beauty of season two is that it already is outperforming season one. Season one started from nothing and built into something. Season two is able to build on something that was already very strong for us. Everything for Car Wash Convos has been shot, so we have a good view on what’s still to come out and we are excited about the stories we have to tell.