Dealers to GM: We Need a National Ad Campaign

Carmaker Has Kept Relatively Quiet as News Media Speculate About Whether It Will Go Bankrupt

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Beleaguered dealers frustrated with General Motors Corp. for sitting quietly on the sidelines are clamoring for a national ad campaign to counteract the daily drumbeat of negative news about whether the company will go belly up.

General Motors Corp. Chairman-CEO Rick Wagoner
General Motors Corp. Chairman-CEO Rick Wagoner
"I would like them to make any kind of bold move," said Bob Bakshi, a dealer in Valencia, Calif., who handles Buick-Pontiac-GMC and Cadillac. "I think a bold move is needed, like 'Keep America Rolling,'" the marketer's interest-free incentive following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Mike Jackson, who left GM in summer 2007 as VP-marketing and advertising in North America, said he'd like to see his former employer "go out swinging" instead of "just sitting back" and taking a "business as usual" approach to marketing.

Not a hint of swagger
The auto giant is anxiously waiting for March 31, when the Obama administration's auto task force will give its verdict on whether to grant another round of federal loan funds to keep GM solvent. In the meantime, there's not a hint of the swagger GM demonstrated just six months ago when it celebrated its 100-year anniversary. "We are a company ready to lead for the next 100 years to come," Chairman-CEO Rick Wagoner buoyantly told attendees at the centennial event in Detroit on Sept. 16.

The automaker's GMC brand did introduce a new national TV spot last week, heralding the heritage of the Sierra full-size pickup and how its vehicles can be used to build roads and infrastructure, in a push from Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett USA, Troy, Mich., and Chicago. And while GM does have a lot of regional ads out now, they are focused on generating new-vehicle sales, so the messages are retail- rather than brand-oriented, an executive close to GM said.

But that just might change. GM's Mark LaNeve, VP-vehicle marketing, sales and service in North America, told Ad Age, "We do believe we've got a great story to tell about how we've reinvented the company and our cars for the future, and we need to tell it. We will do that." He acknowledged that news stories are telling GM's story "for us," which the company plans to address in the near future with its own ad messages. Mr. LaNeve declined to reveal when the new ads are coming.

Retrenching until March 31?
Wes Brown, VP of consultant Iceology, said he believes GM is retrenching until March 31, choosing not to combat the negative news while it is in a wait-and-see mode. Mr. Brown said GM's public-relations staff is probably preparing myriad press releases to be prepared for whatever happens with its request for the next round of loans. "GM is not going to roll over," said the executive close to the company. "Don't count them out."

For now, Mr. Brown said, most carmakers are "sitting on the fence," advertising only when they launch new models.

GM dealer Mr. Bakshi said although the carmaker's U.S. new-vehicle sales plummeted last month -- 53% vs. February 2007 -- Toyota Motor Sales USA's fell off as well, 39.8%. "GM is doing OK considering the circumstances," he said.

Mr. Bakshi said he used to sell between 140 and 150 new GMs monthly, but that started to decline last August and is down to about 30 per month.

The major problem, he said, is getting buyers approved for credit. Mr. Bakshi said he had five customers who wanted to buy a Cadillac Escalade in the first weekend of March, all with credit scores of at least 750. But they couldn't get loans. "Until this credit thing is handled and the banks are back in the lending business nothing is going to change," he said.

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