Stop Whining and Start Acting (Literally): An Open Letter to Self-Storage Professionals
By Randy A. Smith
There’s a lot of chatter in our industry these days—some would call it whining—about the economy, lack of access to capital, soft occupancy rates, property taxes, discounting, unrealistic buyers and sellers, long lease-up times … You name it, and you’re sure to hear someone complaining about it. But more than any other issue facing this business, I hear the most whining about one in particular (more on this in a moment).
For the last two years, I have attempted to interject an idea into the industry about a “new” (actually, old) approach to marketing and creating demand for self-storage. It consists of casting aside “traditional” self-storage marketing methods (which no other industries really use) and adopting a “non-traditional” approach (it’s only non-traditional in our industry). I’m talking about broadcast media.
At Another Closet Self Storage in McAllen, Texas, we use TV and radio to promote our facilities and are experiencing tremendous success with it, even though we operate in one of the poorest areas of our state and have the highest unemployment rate as well. The related articles I’ve written for trade publications have generated discussions with owners, operators and managers across the country. I’ve been to conventions, seminars and retreats, speaking with industry insiders and those who have far more time in the industry than my 10 years.
In short, all responses to my idea fall into one of three categories. Maybe 10 percent of folks see the potential and are actively pursuing the concept. Another 10 percent reject it out of hand as ridiculous. The middle 80 percent say something like, “I’m glad it works for you, but it won’t work in our market,” or “I only have one or two facilities and it won’t do me any good,” or “It’s not cost effective,” or (insert your reason here). Well, I’d like to respectfully disagree and prove you wrong, and I will do it by referring to a current issue in our industry on which we all pretty much agree.
What has generated a tremendous amount of interest in self-storage over the last year? What has had most operators cringing about what new light is being shed on the industry? What are facility managers talking about all across the nation? That’s right, the impact of “Storage Wars,” otherwise known as reality (not really) TV.
On one hand, the majority of self-storage operators say broadcast media won’t work in their market, but on the other, almost every single one of them will tell you storage-related TV has cast the industry in a negative light. Will you pause a moment and see the tremendous mental disconnect here?
So effective is this supposedly unsuccessful and impractical media that self-storage associations nationwide are rounding up legal experts to give seminars on proper lien sale and disposal procedures. Almost every issue of industry magazines contains an article concerning some aspect of “Storage Wars.” Industry blogs include posts about the show, its “unreality” and undesirable effects. At every industry event you’ll hear the subject discussed, and you’ll be asked how the show has affected your facility auction attendance.
All this from one TV program. You say using TV is not a viable option to market your self-storage facility, but then in the next breath you tell me a TV program has had a national impact on the industry. Both of these statements cannot be true!
Like it or not, “Storage Wars” has branded our industry, though it hasn’t done anything for our public image. On the contrary, it’s tarnished it. But let’s point the finger where the blame is largely due … It rests most squarely on our own shoulders because as a whole, the self-storage industry has done a lousy job of branding itself to the public. We have let those outside our industry define us. We are always reacting, never being proactive in a public sense.
We are a highly fragmented industry, but that’s the reason behind our associations: to gain strength in numbers and speak in a unified voice. In my opinion, the associations have focused too much on legislative issues. Don’t get me wrong—those issues are important, and I love the associations, belonging to one of the best ones in the nation. But far more important to our industry is the shaping of our public image. As the saying goes, “perception is reality,” and right now, the public’s perception of self-storage is not a reality we want.
Where are the PR campaigns that educate the public on how self-storage can improve your quality of life and how it isn’t just something you need when you move? There are none. Who is hiring media consultants or PR firms to make TV and radio commercials that can be licensed to self-storage operators on a local level to promote our business in a positive way? No one.
Look at the beef, oil, gas and milk industries. They all have their lobbyist arms to keep an eye on legislation, but they also run hundreds and thousands of ads on radio and TV to brand their products in a favorable light. Self-storage is doing none of that. We’re rushing like lemmings over a cliff, sinking huge sums of money into this black hole called the Internet, all competing only for today’s customer. What about tomorrow’s customer, the one who could rent 90 days, six months, a year, or even five years from now?
What are we as an industry doing to brand self-storage as a natural part of life to coming generations? What are we doing to instill the following in the public mindset: “You stay in school, graduate, go to college, rent a small storage unit, get married, rent a bigger storage unit, buy a house, rent an even bigger storage unit, have kids, get an even BIGGER storage unit, send the kids to college, rent them a small storage unit, etc.?”
You can’t brand your business or your industry on Facebook or Twitter or by bidding on 500,000 Google keywords every day. You don’t build widespread public awareness by handing out candy jars to apartment-complex managers, holding flea markets at your facilities, or bringing in the moon-jumps and hotdogs for a Saturday party. You don’t get accepted by the masses and train them to see/use self-storage as an extension of their own homes by putting coupons on doorknobs. You brand yourself and your industry by using mass broadcast media.
Look at what every other industry is doing … It ain’t what we’ve been doing. For all of the creative (translation: cheesy) marketing efforts we’ve used in our industry over the last 20 years, we got soundly trounced nationwide and had our image set back a decade in just six weeks of reality TV!
It’s time to start acting. Literally. Like in Hollywood. Be a TV star in your home town. Get your facility on local TV or radio. Let’s get our state and national associations to do public-image branding spots in select markets. Get every self-storage operator possible to advertise on TV or radio. Do we want to let “Storage Wars” (or the next storage-related TV show) define who we are, or do we want to define who we are?
As someone who hopes to be in the self-storage industry for a long time to come, I say it’s time to take charge of our own destiny and create the future we want. I am absolutely convinced mass-broadcast media is the best way to do that, whether it’s locally or regionally, statewide or nationwide. Yes, we need rentals today. Yes, we need to lease up our facilities in the short term. But we all have to adopt a more long-term strategic mindset, one that drives us to build public education into our marketing.
We can create demand for self-storage. Once we do, maybe instead of just one out of every 10 Americans using self-storage we can bump that statistic up to two out of 10, then three. What would five out of 10 Americans using self-storage do for our industry? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Where there’s a won’t, there’s an excuse.
Let’s look for ways, not excuses. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please add your comments to the blog.