• Driving Schools Soup Up Their Ads

    Driver education companies are putting the pedal to the marketing metal.

    As high schools across the U.S. cut back on drivers-ed courses, and licensing requirements for teen drivers get tougher, commercial drivers-ed companies are positioning themselves to attract the overflow. Companies are expanding out of their local areas into other states and adopting more sophisticated marketing methods tailored for the iPod generation.

    The latest example is DriversEd.com, a unit of closely held Interactive Solutions, Oakland, Calif., which offers online courses in eight states, up from one in 2002. Last week, as part of an effort to establish a higher profile, the company launched its first television ad campaign. Designed to depict how today's driver training is different from that of older generations, the ad includes a black-and-white image of a teen in the 1920s fighting with an adult for control of a car versus color shots of teens today reading up on drivers education on their laptops.

    DriversEd.com also has begun using popular social-networking Web site MySpace.com for marketing. Earlier this year the company posted a profile page on MySpace for its mascot "Kelly," who likes "fast cars," movies like "The Fast and the Furious" and counts Henry Ford as her hero.

    Other training schools are taking steps to attract teenagers. One common practice for schools providing behind-the-wheels training is to use cars popular with teens -- something they can emphasize in marketing. Stanford Driving School in California, for instance, sends out direct mailings once a month to teenagers turning 15 in Santa Clara County -- just months before the age when teens qualify for a learners permit in California -- featuring pictures of the vehicles. The most recent mailing, sent last month, featured a PT Cruiser. Top Driver Acquisition of Arlington Heights, Ill., which provides driver training in seven states, mentions in its newspaper ads that it uses 2006 Chevrolet Cobalts.

    Driving schools in California and some other states have tried for several years to attract customers with quirky educational tactics, such as having teachers sing hip-hop songs in classes. But the current push towards more aggressive marketing reflects the private sector's growing role in teaching teens to drive across the country.

    Traditionally, the variation in licensing requirements from state to state -- and even county to county -- has kept driver training in the domain of high schools and mom-and-pop outfits. But budget constraints in recent years have led many schools to cut their training programs or outsource them to private providers. In California, for instance, only 318 public schools -- about 25% of the total -- offered driver training in the past school year, down from about 54% in the 1997-98 school year, according to the California Department of Education.

    At the same time, concerns about risky driving among teens have led states to put into place stricter licensing requirements. These new rules put more emphasis on educating drivers, encouraging more drivers-ed companies to endure the lengthy process of state-by-state certification necessary for expansion across the country. Once established in a number of states, companies have more reason to advertise aggressively, in hopes of building a nationally known brand.

    DriversEd.com offers online courses that satisfy in-classroom training requirements for permits and licenses in California, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Virginia and Texas -- compared with just California in 2002. The company is applying to provide service in Pennsylvania.

    "I think we've gotten to the size where we can afford to raise our profile from a regional momand- pop to a nationwide provider," says Gary Tsifrin, chief operating officer and founder of DriversEd.com. For its TV campaign, DriversEd.com turned to Spot Runner, a company based in Los Angeles that for a small fee makes ads and places them on local TV stations or cable channels. DriversEd.com is spending less than $100,000 to make a spot that will be aired about 1,000 times on local cable-TV outlets in California and Texas. If the ad boosts DriversEd.com's traffic by a hoped-for 10% in those regions, it will be rolled out in other markets, the company says.

  • DriversEd.com in the News