Joel Ewanick was in for a revelation when he traveled to Thailand last March for the debut of a concept version of the next Chevrolet Colorado pickup. Seeing the dozens of Thai enthusiasts who brought meticulously tended trucks to the event, he concluded that Chevrolet's worldwide following might be stronger than he had imagined.
"It's quite amazing when you go to a reveal of a truck in Bangkok, Thailand, and you see 70 or 80 vintage Chevrolets sitting out in the parking lot," recalled Ewanick, who had been leading global marketing at General Motors for only three months at the time. "You would think you were on Woodward Avenue," he added, referring to the Detroit artery that is home to the vintage-car Dream Cruise.
Ewanick's point -- that what works in heartland U.S.A. can also work globally -- is central to his job. Since being appointed global chief marketing officer in December 2010, he has been tasked with making Cadillac and Chevrolet global brands.
U.S. consumers might find it hard to think of Chevrolet as a big brand in Thailand -- or in Brazil, China and Russia. Past ad slogans such as "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" positioned Chevy as pure Americana. But Chevrolets are sold in 130 countries, and the brand offers more than 70 nameplates globally. Chevrolet hit a global first-half sales record this year, selling 2.35 million units.
The challenge, said Ewanick, will be to make Chevrolet truly global, rather than what it has been -- a somewhat haphazard assortment of vehicle designs, brand images and advertising strategies spread over the globe.
To do so, it will need some consistency in its marketing. In an email, spokesman Patrick Morrissey wrote that although Chevrolet has developed a global brand book that provides marketing teams and agencies around the world with an overall consistent look and feel for the brand, "each market determines how to apply these principles in their local markets to work with their customers and cultures."
So there are no plans for a unified global campaign.
Tuning the message
"Everything is worked in the local markets, but we do share best practices between countries," he said, noting that the automaker works with varied agencies around the world.
Jim Hall, principal at 2953 Analytics, a consulting firm in suburban Detroit, said that globally Chevy has a "hodge-podge" of identities. It's one of Brazil's leading brands, for instance. But in Japan, he said, Chevrolet is a minor player known for past vehicles like the Caprice wagon.
That will put the onus on local marketing teams to tweak campaigns, he added. "This is where the feet on the ground -- the people implementing the marketing in that country -- will have to have a very good ear to know how it needs to be tuned."
Knowing the local markets will also be important in developing and launching vehicles. Consider the Colorado: The category in which it competes -- mid-sized pickups -- is weak in the United States, but in Thailand it's a monster, said Susan Docherty, GM's head of international sales. "Thailand is the world's-largest market for mid-sized pickups so this was the perfect location in which to unveil our new Colorado."
In a similar move, the world debut of the next-generation Malibu mid-sized car was at the Shanghai auto show in April. It appeared 10 hours later at the New York auto show.
"We're planning to do more of that ," Ewanick said. "We find that it sends a signal."
Previously, cars from various GM brands had Chevy bow ties slapped on them for sale outside the United States. Even the shapes and colors of the bow ties didn't match, recalls Ed Welburn, GM vice president of global design.
Building a consistent global brand allows GM to shift vehicles quickly between markets, he said. The Sonic subcompact, launched in the United States in August in response to gasoline price increases, is a prime example. "I'm not so sure that we thought Sonic would be as important today in America when we began developing that vehicle," Welburn said. "It was extremely important for other locations around the world."
This year, GM replaced the Daewoo brand in Korea with Chevrolet and has seen sales increase. Ewanick, who is a former Hyundai executive, acknowledges that Hyundai and Kia will be market leaders in Korea. But, he added, "We're going to make our friends at Hyundai defend their home market."
'Chalk and cheese'
GM's task may be trickiest in Europe. In recent years, Chevrolet played at the bottom of the market with rebadged Daewoos. In part, that was to differentiate itself from GM's Opel subsidiary, which built cars on the same platforms as U.S. Chevrolets.
Ewanick said Opel will push upmarket to compete more directly with Volkswagen. Chevrolet, meanwhile, will drop the Daewoo vehicles and embrace its American identity. "We clearly want to be seen as a global brand, a world brand with roots in the United States," said Ewanick. "We're not afraid of that . Actually, we're going to encourage that ."
In an interview at the Frankfurt auto show, Nick Reilly, president of GM Europe, said that the strategy is effective: Opel's European identity stands in clear contrast to Chevrolet's American heritage positioning.
"The way the brands are perceived and presented are kind of like chalk and cheese," Reilly said. "We deliberately emphasize Chevy's heritage."
He added: "When we survey Chevrolet buyers and say, 'What else did you consider?' Opel does not get on the list, and if it does it's right down on the bottom. And the same is true the other way around."
Although U.S. brands have had mixed success, at best, in Europe, Chevrolet Europe brand boss Wayne Brannon said Chevy's American identity gives it unique character in Europe. "That separates us from every other brand in Europe," Brannon said at the Frankfurt auto show. He said that European classic car clubs for Chevrolet and Corvette owners form a good base for the identity.
Ford, the only other U.S. automaker selling at high volume in Europe, generally is seen as a European brand there, he said.
That's not to say Chevy's mission is simple. Hall said that just as Chevy's identity varies around the world, the strength of its heritage as a selling point will vary throughout Europe. Eastern European nations, for instance, had little exposure to classic 1950s Chevrolets because they were Russian satellites in those years. In Germany, public sentiment against GM's management of Opel could hurt the brand. And overall, the legacy of rebadged Daewoos in Europe will stick with Chevy. But on the other hand, appreciation of Chevy's legacy is strong in other countries, such as Sweden.
Overall, the challenge is clear. While Chevrolet could gain significant economies by making its vehicles true worldwide products, on that score it currently lags other automakers. According to J.D. Power and Associates, the top-selling car globally in 2010 was the Toyota Corolla, at roughly 902,000 units, followed by the Ford Focus at 806,000 and the VW Jetta/Bora, 791,000. According to Power, Chevrolet's global best-seller, the Cruze, is far below those numbers at about 300,000 units.
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Contributing: Mike Colias