Chevrolet has a new chief, and James Campbell is as surprised as anyone that he's it. Campbell, who spent some 22 years helping dealers market cars, is one of several young executives promoted by CEO Edward E. Whitacre Jr. General Motors' chief expects Campbell to restore luster to a brand that now accounts for about 70% of GM's U.S. sales and has been losing share for years. "There's a lot of work to be done," acknowledges Campbell, who was appointed in December.
Campbell, 45, may seem a strange choice to run GM's most important brand. In a bombastic industry, his mien is more credit-union VP than flashy pitchman. A few years ago Campbell turned down a potentially career-making opportunity to run Chevy's marketing operations in China; after that many of his assignments were decidedly unglamorous (such as selling cars to rental companies). But Campbell's bosses say that his years on dealer lots gave him insights into the middle- and working-class people who buy Camaros, Malibus, and Tahoes. Campbell, who grew up in Michigan, notes that he comes from a Chevy-driving family. "He is Chevrolet," says GM's North American chief, Mark L. Reuss.
Campbell inherits a brand showing nascent signs of life, partly as a result of GM's post-bankruptcy marketing blitz and Toyota's (TM) meltdown. Consumer Reports' annual brand perception survey, released in January, shows that Chevy has zoomed from ninth to fourth place, finishing ahead of BMW and Mercedes. Edmunds.com reports that more visitors to its site have been shopping for Chevys of late. Such trends often predict a sales surge; they did for Ford Motor (F) last year.
For Campbell, the challenge will be getting Americans excited about the new small cars joining Chevy's lineup this year and next. His strategy is simple: buy lots of Chevy ads on sites where people go to price Toyotas and Hondas (HMC). "If they are shopping a Camry or Accord," he says, "we serve up information on the Malibu."
GM is phasing out Pontiac and Saturn, and Campbell wants to keep the 6.5 million customers who bought those brands over the past decade out of rival carmakers' showrooms. So he is trying to make it easier for them to stick with GM. Campbell already has dealers filling customers' in-boxes and mailboxes with deals on service and repairs. Next, he plans to offer potential buyers discounts on new Chevys.
In recent years, as Chevy kept raising the discounts, Toyota used philanthropy and guerrilla marketing to make it seem as American as Motown. Campbell wants to remind people that Chevrolet was there first. He's putting Chevy cars on display at Little League baseball games and letting people test-drive cars at second-tier auto shows around the country.
Campbell will have to keep discounting cars. But dealers say he is more strategic about discounting than GM has been in the past. Duane Paddock, who owns Paddock Chevrolet in Kenmore, N.Y., says he and other dealers told Campbell last year they needed to move their used cars before they could persuade people to pay more for new ones. Campbell got GM to offer cut-rate loans, but only on used models that were piling up. "He calls and wants to know what consumers want," Paddock says. "He actually uses our suggestions."
A man who never dreamed he'd be running Chevy has GM's hardest and most urgent job. With Whitacre determined to free GM from government shackles, Campbell may not have much time to prove his mettle. "As goes Chevy," he says, "so goes GM."