GMC truck push proves Lowe relationship is like a rock

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General Motors Corp. is kicking off an umbrella brand ad campaign in a $20 million push from Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide, New York, for GMC trucks, putting to rest once and for all notions of trouble on the account.

Lowe Lintas inherited the GMC account late last year when Lowe & Partners/SMS was merged with Ammirati Puris Lintas; Ammirati won GMC in fall 1997 without a review. It wasn't long, however, before insiders were reporting the account was in trouble, which both sides have continually denied.

Neither Lee Garfinkle, chairman-CEO and chief creative officer, nor Susan Cantor, management director on GMC, would comment on the purported rift. Going forward, Ms. Cantor said the blitz is "really a credible product story converging with advertising."

With the new campaign that starts Sept. 22, GM will run commercials through the fourth quarter. The tag utilizes the "professional grade" theme GMC has used in past product ads, but the tag since fall 1998 was "Do one thing. Do it well." That theme reflected the brand's nearly 100-year truck heritage.


"There are two major truck divisions at GM and we need to have a distinguishing positioning that's different from Chevrolet as well as other non-GM brands and we need to communicate that better," said Mark-Hans Richer, ad director at GMC since April. Mr. Richer certainly understands the difference between GMC and Chevrolet: his prior job was truck ad manager at Chevy.

Each of the four new TV commercials uses a single GMC engineer to highlight an advanced technology developed for a certain truck. The new ad theme will carry into all ads. Between now and March, GM will launch the Sierra Heavy Duty pickup, the Yukon XL Denali SUV, the Sierra C3 High Performance pickup and the Envoy SUV. In all cases, the ads will do double duty -- for both product and the GMC brand. Print mirrors the spots.

Mr. Garfinkle said the problem with earlier GMC ads was "you couldn't just imply professional grade because people didn't get it." The goal of the new uniform-look campaign, he said, is "to put teeth into what we mean about professional grade."

Other carmakers have tapped staffers for their ads, including Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Division, GM's Saturn Corp. and DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler brand.

Mr. Garfinkle conceded ads with auto staffers aren't new. "The way we're doing it is different," he said. "Each engineer symbolizes a significant innovation of the vehicle."

Like other GM brands, GMC shifted ad strategies after the marketer introduced a brand management system in 1995. Under that system, GMC tried to create brand personalities for each of its trucks and there were no ads for the umbrella GMC brand. GMC was designated as GM's premium truck marque, according to then-brand czar Ron Zarrella, now president of GM North America.


Wes Brown, an analyst at consultancy Nextrend, said GMC's identity problems as a premium truck brand were compounded when GM gave its luxury Cadillac Division the Escalade sport-utility last year.

GMC's pickups and SUVs compete for the same affluent buyers as GM's high-end Chevrolet trucks and SUVs, the Oldsmobile Bravada SUV and the Cadillac Escalade, he said. "Now GMC is struggling to find an identity that's different from Chevrolet, Cadillac and Oldsmobile."

But at least GMC has started model differentiation. Early this year, the GMC Suburban SUV became the Yukon XL to distinguish it from Chevrolet's Suburban. Other GMC-unique models are in the wings, he said.

GMC spent $246.6 million in measured media last year, up 108% from $118.2 million in 1998, according to Competitive Media Reporting. The brand sold 353,036 trucks in the first eight months of 2000, up 1.9% from 346,436 during the same time period a year ago, according to Automotive News. In 1999, the brand sold 521,294 trucks, up 15.6% from 450,783 units in '98, when GM was shuttered for seven weeks during a strike.

Susan Jacobs, president of auto consultancy Jacobs & Associates, predicted GMC will have a hard time competing with the SUVs of more-established, upscale brands, including BMW of North America and Mercedes-Benz USA. "A lot of GMC's competitors will be able to pull buyers familiar with their badge from their existing buyer base," she said. Although GMC has a reasonable strategy, "it's hard to have a unique positioning in GM's lineup without bumping into Chevrolet or Cadillac," she said.

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