GM seeks 'redemption' with quality effort

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General Motors Corp. is planning a corporate ad campaign to change consumer perception of its vehicle quality, a project internally dubbed the "road to redemption."

It's not known how much GM might put behind the effort, although the automaker spent $198 million in measured media on corporate advertising in 2002, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

The initiative comes as GM North American President Gary Cowger prepares for a May 6 media teleconference to discuss GM's performance in J.D. Power & Associates' 2003 Initial Quality Study. For the first time, the consultant will announce which marketer builds the best American car.

Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Cowger confirmed that, "A quality campaign is something we've been investigating, but we have no campaign to announce."

According to a dealer who asked not to be named, the purpose of the GM campaign, slated for summer, is to "move the needle" among consumers who don't realize the auto giant has sharply improved vehicle quality. The dealer said the phrase "road to redemption" appears as a copy line in some of the print advertising, and that it is the premise of the overall effort. A second dealer, however, said the theme may have changed because of concerns about its frankness voiced at a meeting earlier this year. Executives at Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson, Troy, Mich., GM's corporate agency, declined to comment.

Vehicle quality plays a crucial role for buyers, said Joseph Ivers, a partner at J.D. Power. About a third of new-vehicle buyers say quality in the first 90 days of ownership is important when shopping for a vehicle, and half cite long-term reliability as a major factor in their pick.

A spokesman at GM said the automaker doesn't get J.D. Power survey results ahead of time. But he said the marketer tracks quality internally and expects several of its models to stay in the top of their industry segments. Earlier this year, GM manufacturing VP Troy Clarke projected nominal improvements for the automaker in the study.

Mr. Ivers said GM has been systematically improving its initial quality since 1998. "GM has established parity in their initial quality and a lot of their vehicles far exceed that, especially their passenger cars."

That isn't necessarily reflected by consumers. In J.D. Power's 2002 study, GM models came out tops in four of the nine car segments, including the hyper-competitive premium midsize category, in which Chevrolet's Malibu bested Toyota Motor Sales USA's Camry and American Honda Motor Co.'s Accord. No GM truck models, however, ranked first in any of the seven segments. Toyota Motor's Toyota brand ranked highest in five truck segments; its Lexus sibling in one. Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Expedition bested the full-size sport utility category.

lag time

GM "lags a bit" in long-term dependability, said Mr. Ivers, although he said the automaker has made improving dependability a priority. Only GM's Buick and Cadillac brands rated above the industry average of 355 problems per 100 vehicles, according to J.D. Power's 2002 long-term dependability study. The study, released last fall, surveyed more than 30,000 original owners of 1998 model-year vehicles.

When it comes to quality perception, GM brands also didn't fare well in a survey of 113,500 people intending to buy 2003 models, conducted by CNW Marketing/Research. CNW asked them to rank the quality of auto brands, with 10 being the top score. Cadillac did best among GM brands with a score of 8.9, tied for fifth on the list with Porsche, Volvo and Volkswagen. The next best GM brand was Saturn, in ninth place with an 8.3.

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