Change Agents: Pontiac

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"Revive Pontiac" stayed on General Motors' to-do list for decades. Even as its other brands became nondescript and GM's market share tumbled, its executives always believed they could create excitement around Pontiac again, just as they had in the muscle-car era of the 1960s.

And now finally-even as GM itself continues to crumble-Pontiac is enjoying a genuine rebirth in its products, its marketing, its brand image and its showroom sizzle. Its Solstice two-seater is one of the hottest sellers

in the U.S. market. Pontiac has created buzz-building tie-ins with hip properties ranging from Oprah to Google. And surveys show the brand is appearing on more young consumers' shopping lists.

"It hasn't been the coolest thing to have a Pontiac in your driveway for a while," admits Mark-Hans Richer, who has been leading Pontiac's rebirth as its marketing director since 2004, and its advertising director before that. "Our job is to re-establish that feeling."

For Mr. Richer, success in rebuilding the Pontiac brand has hinged on a crucial twist compared with earlier renaissance efforts that only paid lip service to the brand's long-time "Excitement!" motto. A native Milwaukeean who attended his high-school prom in a '57 Ford Thunderbird, the 39-year-old Mr. Richer grew up appreciating the Midwestern roots of Pontiac's success. His father collected and tinkered with dozens of cars.

Yet Mr. Richer is adamant in pointing out that the new Pontiac isn't his father's Pontiac.

"It would have been far easier for us just to be retro and do what the '60s Pontiac was," he says. "But people forget that, back then, Pontiac was a very progressive brand. So we're trying to move it into a new space and still be true to what we've been."

Pontiac's strategy is premised on "creating social acceptance" for the brand, Mr. Richer says. That starts with exciting products such as Solstice, which is still available only in limited quantities but also creates a halo for the brand. There's also the sporty G6, which just became available in a convertible as well; the sleek Torrent SUV; and a robust new GTO.

Mr. Richer is leveraging the new sheet metal into brand enhancement largely through what he calls "product fusion": aligning Pontiac with other brands that are already cool.

Oprah Winfrey's giveaway of 276 G6s to her audience members in late 2004 was just the first gambit. Pontiac vehicles also have figured heavily in plot lines on "The Apprentice" and "Survivor" reality-TV shows. Its TV ads have invited viewers to "Google Pontiac," doubling initial online searches on the brand. Pontiac, whose agency is Leo Burnett, Detroit, is going on a concert tour with Virgin for the second consecutive year, and the U.K.-based record label selects all the music for Pontiac ads.

And while Pontiac continues to make effective use of other traditional media such as newspaper advertising, the brand Web site also is gaining kudos. was just ranked as one of the three most useful new-vehicle shopping sites by J.D. Power & Associates, largely on the strength of its easy navigability.

Because of the brand's revival, as expressed both in new products and new marketing, Pontiac's showroom traffic is up about 20% compared with a year ago, according to CNW Marketing Research. "That's actually an incredible increase considering that, while they have some new products, for the most part they're a mainstream brand," says Art Spinella, president of Bandon, Ore.-based CNW.

Even more remarkable is that about 40% more women are entering Pontiac showrooms this year. And the average age of 2006's Pontiac shopper has plummeted to 41; it was 54 last year, CNW says.

Pontiac's geography is improving along with its demographics. Sales last year were up 19% in San Francisco and 12% in Los Angeles, for example, while also rising 8% in Houston and 3% in Miami.

Of course, Mr. Richer's strategy leaves plenty of room for doubt so far. Most important, Pontiac's actual sales overall keep slipping: They're down nearly 10% on an annualized basis so far this year, and the 438,000 Pontiacs sold in 2005 were down from sales of 475,000 in both 2003 and 2004.

And some other guardians of the brand remain skeptical. "GM doesn't have enough time, money or smarts to reinvent Pontiac," says Jim Wangers, the retired GM executive who built Pontiac's muscle-car era. "They've got to recapture what the brand was."

And Mr. Wangers is joined by a chorus of critics who maintain that GM has undercut all of its brands over the last few years by emphasizing price discounts to move vehicles. But GM Chairman-CEO Richard Wagoner has vowed to break GM's rebate addiction.

Meanwhile, Mr. Richer plans to continue to make the most of his stint at Pontiac.With a history degree from Northwestern University and an MBA from the University of Michigan, he worked on the McDonald's account at DDB Needham in Chicago. About nine years ago he joined GM and shortly came up with the "Professional Grade" brand positioning that helped turn around GMC.

"Cars are an incredible category," Mr. Richer says, "with incredible opportunity. And I really believe Pontiac is one of the best opportunities out there."
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