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G.M. President's Next Challenge: Getting Young Urbanites to Buy Trax Mini SUV

'We Don't Look at Everything Through TV Advertising'

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Alan Batey
Alan Batey

Alan Batey, General Motors' president-North America, is one of those marketers who fills the room.

With his big laugh and "hail-fellow-well-met" persona, he's the type of guy who could talk a bird out of a tree. During a media scrum at the New York International Auto Show this week, he joked that he and the media pack surrounding him should take the conversation to the bar.

But Mr. Batey is facing a tricky advertising challenge -- selling an SUV to young city dwellers.

During an auto show event, Mr. Bates announced that Chevy will launch a small SUV in the U.S. called Trax. Describing the vehicle as "designed for urban adventures," Mr. Batey said he'll aim Trax at "urban pioneers looking to discover the city." To help grab these tech-savvy consumers,Trax will feature, among other things, a wireless hotspot that allows up to seven people to use their wireless devices at the same time.

Chevy Trax
Chevy Trax

But it might need more than that to lure urban millennials. Research indicates many of the young, city-dwelling hipsters Mr. Batey wants to target prefer taking the bus, subway or bike to get around town. When they need cars, they opt for car-sharing services like Zipcar and Enterprise CarShare to avoid the expense and hassle of owning and parking a car.

Advertising Age asked Mr. Batey how he'll pull it off. He was also pressed on whether GM will address the ignition-switch recall in its advertising and marketing. And how the British-born soccer fan feels about Chevy's Bowtie logo finally going on the front of Manchester United jerseys later this year.

Excerpts:

Ad Age: Young hipsters don't buy a lot of cars. Why are you marketing Trax at this tough crowd of consumers and how do you reach them?

Mr. Batey: They are buying cars. Clearly, when you're doing marketing positioning, you build out from the persona of the customer you're leaning into. They're out there. People like to drive these crossover-type vehicles. This is a great segment. . . . We don't look at everything through TV advertising. When we launched the Sonic here in the U.S., we didn't do any TV advertising at all. Everything we did was in the digital space. We had huge success. As you know, Sonic is No. 1 or No. 2, month in, month out, in the small car segment. [Chevy's Global CMO] Tim Mahoney is here tonight. We're planning the [Trax] launch as we speak. We're not going to be just traditional. We really want to lean into these people using all the digital uses we can.

Ad Age: Despite several months of controversy, GM has yet to address the ignition-switch recall controversy in its advertising. We haven't seen the full-page ads companies typically employ in these situations. Instead, Mary Barra is leading GM's response through written/video statements and testimony before Congress. Will this change?

Mr. Batey: At this moment in time, we've said everything we can about the recalls. We are obviously extremely sorry about what happened. We've told everybody we're going to do this full investigation, using the best people we can, to go where the facts are.

Ad Age: But should you address it in your advertising?

Mr. Batey: At this moment in time, there's no need to. What we've got is a good balance. We've put the facts out there. People understand the facts. They're visiting our showrooms and they're buying our vehicles as evidenced by the fact that we outpaced the industry last month. ... Recalls are part of our industry. It's a big recall. But there was also one of our competitors [Toyota] last week announced a huge global recall. So they're part of our business.

Ad Age: Is GM finally breathing easier over Chevy's highly criticized $600 million sponsorship of Manchester United now that the Bowtie will finally go on the front of jerseys this season?

Mr. Batey: This is about unaided awareness around the world. Soccer is a global sport. So we're excited about it happening. We have some big ideas we're going to execute. We announced a game at the Big House in Michigan. Sold it out in 48 hours. It will be one of the largest soccer crowds in the U.S (Editor's note: ManU will play Real Madrid at the University of Michigan's Michigan Stadium on Aug. 2.)

We'll use [the ManU sponsorship] everywhere. We'll use it in China and Asia. But I think it's also going to be great here in the U.S. ... [Soccer's] one of the most popular sports for male and female children. That's going to continue to grow. So I believe soccer is going to be one of the really huge sports in the U.S. And it doesn't get bigger than Manchester United.

Ad Age: Will Chevy advertise during World Cup?

Mr. Batey: We're not an official sponsor. Like the Olympics, only those brands that official sponsors are allowed to use the logo and be the official sponsor. But having Manchester United in your portfolio, if you want, puts you in there. Even though you're not directly linked.

Ad Age: What do you think of the huge reaction to Cadillac's controversial "Poolside" commercial?

Mr. Batey: It's getting a lot of attention. I like that. That's how you break through. If people are talking about it, that's good news.

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