After years spent sending car-buyers confusing messages, GM aims to find some brand images and stick to them
Typical General Motors. First, the company ditches Buick's new advertising campaign in September after just a couple of months on the airwaves. Then, on Dec. 4, GM promotes Susan Docherty, the former head of Buick who approved the ads, and her replacement leaves after eight days, before the company settles on a new general manager for Buick. That may be an extreme example, even for GM. But it does show the revolving door of brand general managers and flip-flopping ad campaigns at GM for the past two decades. Consumers are confused by the company's brands because it has changed personnel and direction so many times. "They have got to focus," says Daniel Gorrell, president of AutoStrategem, an automotive marketing consulting firm. "In marketing, it's about bombarding a consumer with a proposition. It's finding a relevant message and staying on that message." Backed by the advice of retired Coca-Cola (KO) Chairman and CEO Neville Isdell—who sits on GM's board and has a rabbi-like role in marketing—GM is trying to establish consistent leadership, message, and image for its brands. That means getting everything moving in step—from the design of the cars, to advertising, to how dealer showrooms look. "Everything communicates," Isdell said in an interview. "This is a long road, but it needs consistency." GM hasn't had anything like that in years. Brands such as Saturn and Buick have changed ad campaigns routinely. Saturn's marketing, for example, lurched from cars built around people, to waving the flag with "Rethink American." The change left consumers wondering whether Saturn was still a folksy people's brand or an American alternative to Japanese cars. Only Cadillac and Chevy trucks have stuck to their guns, advertising Cadillac's edgy styling and performance cars and Chevy's brawny, all-American image. Saturn, which GM is winding down, had about a half-dozen different marketing themes this decade. Vice-Chairman Robert A. Lutz says Pontiac, which is also headed for the scrap heap, had as many as six different general managers since he joined GM in 2001. Buick's "World Class" Message
From now on, Lutz wants GM's new brand general managers for Cadillac, Chevrolet, and Buick-GMC—all of whom were named to their posts within the past four months—to stay atop those brands for some time. "I hope for some stability," Lutz said in an e-mail. "It's a major issue in maintaining any sort of consistency." Strangely, scrapping Buick's campaign in September was a step toward devising a message that GM could carry for the brand in the long run, says Docherty. "Take a Look at Me Now" was meant to show that Buick's new models, such as the Enclave SUV and Lacrosse sedan, were more sophisticated vehicles than the boulevard boats that consumers associate with the brand. Lutz hated the campaign. He said it didn't focus on the cars and wasted money. "The product must be the hero and you have to make meaningful claims about it," Lutz said in an interview. Plus, the old theme wasn't a message GM could stick with, says Docherty, who is now GM's vice-president for sales and marketing. Even if it worked, "Take a Look at Me Now" is a temporary comeback story.
GM wanted something that could be used consistently for years in the same way that BMW has used "Ultimate Driving Machine" for years. So Buick and agency Leo Burnett came up with "The New Class of World Class" and changed all of the creative work in 14 days, Docherty says. That theme also matched Lutz's strategy of comparing its models to top-rated imports sold by the likes of Honda (HMC), Toyota (TM), BMW (BMWA:GR), and Lexus. Marketing Imagery
There is some risk, of course. GM has to be careful not to go too far and try to take every car to market the same way. Even if Chevy has an all-American theme or pushes a proposition of good value, "you wouldn't market a Camaro the same way you market a Malibu," says James N. Hall, principal of auto consulting firm 2953 Analytics. That's why the imagery for each model is so important. In Buick's "Crosswalk" ad, a driver slowly rolls his Lacrosse into the crosswalk of a busy city street. A narrator says, "It's not the new Lexus. It's not the new BMW. It's not the new Audi." Fawning pedestrians start gathering around as a camera pans slowly around the car so viewers can see every angle. Isdell says the ad is in the sweet spot of where GM should be because it showcases the car's style but also has the audacity to compare a Buick to top-of-the-line rivals. Changing perceptions won't "come from great jingles or women draping themselves over a car," he says. "It's the imagery of the car and the quality of the shoot." The comparison strategy is showing some early results. According to car shopping site Edmunds.com, GM's four remaining brands are getting more looks from consumers. Since May of this year, when GM was on the edge of bankruptcy, the percentage of shoppers on the Edmunds Web site who looked at Buick models has risen from 1.1% to 2%. The percentage of shoppers considering GMC vehicles has risen from 2.7% to 4%, and Cadillac consideration has grown from 2.2% to 3.2%. Chevy has remained stagnant, at 12% to 13%, in those months. Upgrades for Chevy Showrooms
Isdell maintains that he doesn't make strategic decisions for GM's marketing. He leaves that to Lutz, Docherty, and new GM-North America President Mark Reuss. But Isdell does discuss his ideas with Lutz and other executives. He tries to bring lessons from Coke to GM. At Coke, the company tried to stay on message with everything, right down to how the company's delivery trucks look. Similarly, GM is pushing its Chevrolet dealers to upgrade their showrooms. GM is rolling out a plan that will give a fresh, blue-and-white facade to the dealerships. The division wants nicer decor inside with a more comfortable waiting area and wireless Internet connections so people can work or surf the Web while waiting for repairs or maintenance work to be completed, says James Campbell, who was named Chevy general manager on Dec. 9. Like so much of GM's fix-it plan, the spruce-up will take years to complete. Chevy launched the plan in October. Campbell says 155 dealers have started working on it. GM will offer them stipends for hitting sales targets and improving their showrooms in an effort to defray the costs. But it will still take years to get the work done at more than 3,000 dealers, he says. "It can't hurt," says Hall. "GM is finally in a position to ask its dealers to improve their showrooms." While Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre isn't known for his patience (he fired CEO Frederick A."Fritz" Henderson after five months on the job), Isdell says the board knows it takes time to really get things turned around. Even if the marketing is consistent, he says, GM needs time for its products to improve and for dealers to sharpen the retail experience. "The cars are better but there's still a way to go," he says. "Turnarounds really take 10 years."