GM Might Not be a Brand, but Sometimes it Sure Acts Like One

How Director of Brand Marketing Bob Kraut Battles Consumer Skepticism

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The last line in General Motors' TV commercial on its new 100,000-mile warranty caught my attention: "The best coverage in America from the biggest brand in America."
General Motors found that 'while business people and trendsetters were willing to hear the solid facts behind our product-value story, many customers simply wouldn't believe us,' said director of brand marketing Bob Kraut. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
General Motors found that 'while business people and trendsetters were willing to hear the solid facts behind our product-value story, many customers simply wouldn't believe us,' said director of brand marketing Bob Kraut. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below. Credit: AP

GM a brand?
Say what? Is GM now a brand? Does GM think that its various car brands need a lift from the mother ship? And is GM -- the company -- in any position to help out?

Bob Kraut, GM's director-brand marketing, knows image and he knows perception. And he's working under the premise that it takes awhile for both to catch up to reality.

Kraut cited Apple as an example of a company that has the opposite problem of GM. Apple's brand image, he said "almost certainly" exceeds the quality of its products, whereas the perception of GM "is far less than we deserve."

Apple's fanatical fans
"Apple's fans are famously fanatical about their company. They tend to gloss over the fact that for all Apple's design, engineering and marketing genius, this is also the company that gave the world the Lisa, Apple III and the Newton."

Yet today, he said, Apple is "a marketing and media icon, and the cherished preference of a vocal, visible, influential segment of the marketplace." Kraut said "correcting that imbalance" -- and aligning perception more closely -- is his job.

Kraut told the Business Marketing Association of New York the other week about his efforts to speed the process. He said "it isn't enough to cut costs and enhance revenue, no matter how sexy your products.

"This is a pivotal issue to GM. We came to clearly understand both our credibility problem and the opportunity. Put simply: You can only take consumers where they're willing to go.

Unbelieving customers
"On the one hand, we found that while business people and trendsetters were willing to hear the solid facts behind our product-value story, many customers simply wouldn't believe us.

"On the other hand, we also found that we could begin to open some of those minds by providing a compelling emotional case for our products." Out of that dilemma came GM's "head and heart" strategy to "win hearts, open minds, change perceptions."

To start down this road, GM ran several "then and now" TV spots combining historical footage with contemporary celebrities and GM's current vehicle lineup. He said the spots evoked "a storehouse of good feelings."

To reach consumers on a deeper level "by treating issues in a calm, forthright, reasoned and reassuring fashion," GM ran a series of seven issue-oriented print ads. The first was headlined, "What in the world is going on at GM?"

100,000 mile warranty
Its 100,000 mile warranty hits both emotional and intellectual buttons, Kraut said, and the integrated campaign boosted consumers' consideration of GM products.

Kraut also said the automaker is "giving the lie" to the "misconception about GM that we're stodgy, conservative and unimaginative."

For instance, when The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman rebuked GM for low fuel efficiency of its vehicles, GM responded in its GM FastLane blog when the Times declined to publish its letter to the editor. It also bought hundreds of search terms related to the column.

"In short, in terms of advertising and communications, we are making a concerted effort to get our story told," Kraut asserted.

But how about my question as to whether GM itself was trying to become a brand? It isn't. Kraut later said the company has found using GM as an umbrella helps some brands (and presumably hurts others). When GM referred to itself as "the biggest brand in America," the company did it as a "short-term tactic" for "efficiency" reasons. Kraut said he views the GM name as more of a platform" -- a resource" -- than an umbrella.
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