NILES, Ohio – As the Coates family started to work on rebranding their chain of five car washes across the area, they got to thinking about what the new logo would say about the company.
Blue was a given; water and a car wash go hand in hand, after all. But bubbles? Too cliche. So what would Coates Car Care’s new look be based on?
The inspiration, it turned out, sat in stacks of old family photographs. In some, the car wash’s original sign and hand-painted instructions and prices – a wash for $1, wax for an extra 50 cents – are easily seen as employees talk to customers or clean cars.
“What we’re trying to get across with our rebranding is that we’ve been doing this for 62 years,” says Jim Coates, owner of the Niles-based company. “There’s a big push in the car wash industry right now. … They’re all run by equity firms that go based off numbers. This rebranding is to tell people that we’ve done this a long time, that we know what we’re doing and we’re going to continue doing it for a long time.”
With the third generation now involved in Coates Car Care – four if you count founder James Coates Sr.’s dad, a master electrician who wired the original drive-thru – part of the effort is expanding the company’s offerings.
“We have a good handle on the ins and outs of washing the car. We know what works and what doesn’t work,” says James Coates III, director of operations. “Anything that we can add or anything that we can learn, we’re going to do it. This is our life and we want to be the best at it every chance we get.”
In recent years, Coates launched Wash Club, offering unlimited car washes for a monthly fee, and Text Club, which offers customers discounts and resources. Work is wrapping up on the installation of free vacuums at the Austintown site, bringing the service to all five Coates Car Care sites. The next step, Jim Coates says, is the installation of mat cleaners at all sites – Niles, Austintown, Howland, Cortland and Hermitage, Pa. And, at the Niles site, Coates offers oil changes and auto repairs.
“The value-added side is what we’re moving toward now, such as giving away dashboard wipes, towels, window cleaner and other detailing supplies,” Jim Coates says. “We’re giving as much away to our customers so they can say, ‘Coates has everything we need right there.’ If you want to get your car washed and drive away, you can. If you want to spend some time on your car taking care of the windows and the mats and the interior, you can do that too.”
The rebranding effort also comes with a fresh look for the website, CoatesCarCare.com, and the addition of more educational tools for customers.
From the outside, a car wash can appear simple, but for the experts, there are plenty of options to help a car look brand new.
“Some people think you pay money, get some water sprayed on and dried off. But there’s so much more than that,” says James Coates III. “There’s stuff with chemistry and pH levels and where nozzles are placed throughout the tunnel, what lifts dirt, what removes it.”
The basic idea of a drive-thru car wash hasn’t changed much since James Coates Sr. opened his first in 1959. But the tools and chemicals involved in the cleaning process have come a long way. Water, soap and wax are still the basic ingredients, but have been improved.
“The end result is the same. We want to give a clean car the best we can – but the wash process has gotten a lot more efficient,” Jim Coates says. “With these chemicals, the cars come out drier. They come out shinier. The wax is incredible. There’s a new ceramic wax from Simoniz we use that’s really incredible. You’re not paying for something that makes no difference. It absolutely makes a difference nowadays.”
But with those innovations and advancements in automated features, he adds that there’s still no substitute for a personal touch.
“We still prep our vehicles. We wipe down the front and back ends to get bugs off, get snow off, that sort of thing,” he continues. “I’ve seen equipment come, go and come back. That said, there’s not really a piece of equipment that can clean those parts of the car like we want.”
Adds James Coates III: “That interaction of seeing someone physically getting your car clean, I think that goes a long way.”
The biggest thought behind the rebranding, the Coates family says, is to remind people of a time when things seemed simpler and more personal. Along with the new logo, Michael Pontikos of Sokitnop Designs, created new sign boards for the car washes that evoke the Googie design aesthetic of the late 1950s.
“It was about getting the right look and feel. One of the biggest things was this idea of out with the new and in with the old. We wanted to touch on the history and who Coates Car Care is,” says Pontikos, who is also a marketing professor at Youngstown State University. “Hitting that nostalgia, I think, can touch a chord with an older generation and a newer generation that’s looking toward that simpler time.”
Throughout the design process, Pontikos and the Coates family went back through old family photographs and newspaper clippings, starting with the original McKinley Car Wash – before the name was changed – through the 1970s.
“It’s emotional thinking about how much work my grandpa put in to build what we have. We have to build upon that. It’s not an easy job but it’s great,” says James Coates III of going back through the memorabilia.
And, adds Jake Coates, the newest member of the family to join the company: “It’s motivational. It comes with pressure since we’re in the third generation trying to keep it going. We need to try new things and keep it exciting. We need to bring our generation’s knowledge into the company.”
Part of that, Jim Coates says, is adapting to a new style of management for the company’s roughly 70 employees across its five sites.
“These guys have a different approach to our team members,” he says as he gestures to his sons. “You handle people differently and try to do as many positive things for them as you can. It’s almost like a college recruiting someone; you want to have the best facilities, the best uniforms, the best team for them. We’re trying to make our team members feel like they’re a big part of this company because they are.”
Pictured at top: The original drive-thru car wash, which has undergone several renovations and expansions, was built in 1959 along U.S. Route 422 in Niles.