General Motors Co. plans to use the introduction of Chevrolet’s Sonic subcompact at the Detroit auto show today as a chance to redefine the brand’s vehicles as modern and high-tech, rather than big and gas-guzzling.
GM will boast that the car, engineered with help from the Corvette team, will match rivals’ fuel-efficiency and offer satellite navigation technology while selling for less than $20,000. Sonic replaces the Aveo in Chevy’s lineup in September.
Chevrolet is trying to prove that it can make fuel- efficient, technologically advanced cars that are fun to drive after decades of being known mostly for its muscle cars, pickups and sport-utility vehicles. GM’s marketing team says the feat may be difficult to pull off.
“It’s a huge challenge,” Global Chief Marketing Officer Joel Ewanick said in an interview. “People shop cars three deep. For too many people, we’re number four or five on the list. They see us as a truck brand.”
Chevrolet got 59 percent of its sales from light trucks last year, according to Autodata Corp., a research firm in Woodcliff Lakes, New Jersey.
Chevy’s remake gathered momentum with the December introduction of the Volt, an electric car that uses a gasoline engine to recharge the battery. With the Volt already shipping to customers, Ewanick has been working with the Goodby, Silverstein & Partners advertising agency to promote the brand’s fuel economy, entertainment systems and performance engines.
Car brands must represent the newest technology to American consumers who love their smart phones and gadgets, Ewanick said last month. GM already has the technology and now needs to get the word out to consumers, he said.
“Safety and quality are becoming commoditized,” Ewanick said. “When someone looks at a car today, they want to believe they’re getting the latest technology.”
About 23 percent of car shoppers were considering Chevy when they were surveyed by San Diego-based research firm Strategic Vision Inc. late last year. That trailed 40 percent for Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. and 37 percent for Ford Motor Co. in the firm’s survey of 38,000 new-vehicle buyers. Hyundai Motor Co. was considered by 17 percent of shoppers.
“If Chevy were to stay with the image as a rough-and- tumble brand, they would become less relevant,” said Strategic Vision President Alexander Edwards.
Only two automakers -- Ford and Toyota -- sold more cars and trucks in the U.S. last year than GM did with its Chevy brand.
Chevrolet boasts in an ad for its Cruze compact, which went on sale in September, that Bluetooth wireless technology is available in all versions of the vehicle. That’s not the case with rival Toyota’s Corolla, the ad says. Other spots highlight the car’s turn-by-turn navigation system and StabiliTrak traction control.
“In some cases, we’ve had these technologies for years,” Ewanick said. “We just haven’t done a good job of tying it in with the brand.”
Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson is closely involved in the marketing, Ewanick said. Akerson, who took over Sept. 1, has pushed GM to build more of the Volt and add the car’s electric- drive technology in models for other brands, people familiar with the matter have said.
The new marketing angle helps dealers by focusing on Chevrolet’s vehicles and their features instead of discount financing and deals, said Duane Paddock, owner of Paddock Chevrolet in Kenmore, New York.
“We’ve got to communicate to the public that we’re not a deal company,” Paddock said in a telephone interview. “Now the product is the reason we communicate. We’re seeing different kinds of buyers with the Equinox SUV, and we’re starting to see a different buyer for Cruze.”
Ewanick also is identifying the Corvette sports car more closely with the Chevrolet brand. Dealers had marketed the car primarily as a Corvette, with the Chevy “bowtie” logo only appearing as a small feature inside the Corvette racing flags symbol.
The newest ad for the car calls it “Corvette, by Chevrolet” and shows engineers working on one of NASA’s space launches. The camera then cuts to a Corvette speeding around a track with the tagline, “It’s nice to know America still builds rockets.”
With a $125,000 price tag on the top-line ZR1 Corvette, the car is GM’s most-expensive model and can improve the brand’s image, Ewanick said.
“A Corvette is a Chevrolet just like a Silverado pickup, just like a Cruze,” he said. “You’ll see us tying it in more and more.”
GM also has made Chevy the face of the corporation for environmental initiatives. In November, Chevrolet announced it would invest $40 million in solar, wind and environmental projects across the country.
GM worked with groups such as the Los Angeles-based Climate Action Reserve and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia, to identify environmental projects for investment, Ewanick said.
The company is seeking to reverse years of bad relations with environmental groups and burnish the brand’s image, he said.
“The whole thing was done to admit carbon-emissions are a problem,” Ewanick said. “We’re no longer a company that walks away from fuel economy and carbon emissions regulations.”
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