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Why GM's 'What Is 230' Buzz Wasn't Enough

Chevy Volt Push Confused, Failed to Engage Consumers

By Published on . 11

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- General Motors Corp.'s "What is 230?" campaign netted more buzz for the Chevy Volt than the brand has seen in six months. Even so, if this is the first example of what to expect under GM's mandate to build digital buzz, don't expect too much. The push was flawed because it was ill-timed, targeted a group that is not likely to be the core Volt buyer and -- most of all -- didn't offer enough clues to engage people.

Chevy Volt
Chevy Volt Credit: GM
Just ask Gabriel O'Brien, who was inspired by silence from the marketer and the complete absence of breadcrumbs around the "teaser campaign" to tweet: "There's a fine line between offering too much & not enough (re: viral marketing). The 'What is 230' campaign fails completely. Lame."

Flickr commenter Alexfugazi warned that "whatever it is, they have to be very careful ... they could turn the tide against them if they don't A. Back up this campaign w/ something with substance; B. Start letting some info out."

And G4 blogger Moye Ishimoto attacked it in a blog post: "Hey, 230 people. Slow down. Evolve on the same speed as the rest of us. Your viral campaign isn't working because we're only spreading the confusion rather than hype over a new product. And the lack of hints just makes us tired of trying to figure this thing out."

The ads, which featured the number 230 and a smiling electric outlet were a teaser to announce that the Chevy Volt will get 230 miles on a charge. (That is, once it's out in 2011.) GM dropped a lot of money on a media buy -- the ads were spotted during Major League Baseball games airing last weekend, on Hulu and in office elevators. But that's where the information ended.

"There was no story, just an open-ended question, and for people who wanted to dive deeper in to the rabbit hole, there was nothing there," said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, which has launched several social-media campaigns for marketers such as HBO and EA. "I saw more talk about the government moving onto a 230-volt standard than this being for an electric car. That's a problem."

Unintended results
Scout Labs, which measures social-media chatter, found most of the buzz around Chevy Volt before GM confessed to being behind the 230 campaign didn't include mentions of the campaign. After the announcement was made, that changed. Interestingly, Scout noted the "What is 230" buzz also helped deliver a spike for rival Toyota's Prius -- presumably not what GM intended.

The biggest boon for Chevy may actually have come from an Aug. 6 Ad Age story that pinpointed the automaker as the source of the mysterious viral effort. Google Insights highlighted the piece as a key news story that drove conversation about the campaign. (And without it, people might have kept on believing the government going to pull a voltage switch.)

The campaign was reminiscent of one that ran last January: PepsiCo's "What is G?" teaser for Gatorade's rebranding, an effort that also stymied the general public and hasn't exactly worked out well for the brand. At its peak, "What is G" was 40% more popular (as measured by searches) than "What is 230," according to Google Insights -- probably owing to the fact G had a Super Bowl ad push behind it.

And there was another big difference, one that begged the question of why GM bothered with a teaser campaign in the first place. While Gatorade needed to generate awareness of its new brand -- and you could buy it in store shelves shortly after -- the Volt already had brand recognition; it was introduced with fanfare in 2008.

Asked earlier this week about the decision to run a blind teaser campaign, GM CEO Fritz Henderson said that in order to win a new generation of buyers, "we need to relate to people between 16 and 30. They communicate differently and we need to make sure we plug into that. It's going to change advertising and it's going to change marketing and, over time, how we sell cars."

That may be true, but so is this: At $40,000, the Volt will be too expensive for much of that demographic.

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Contributing: Jean Halliday

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