GM's 'Buzz Score' Plummets in Wake of Recall

Damage More Severe Than That Inflicted by Automaker's Bankruptcy

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Chevy Cobalt was part of the recall.
Chevy Cobalt was part of the recall.

The bad news for General Motors: The ongoing recall of 1.6 million vehicles is doing serious damage to the auto-maker's reputation. The good news: GM's consumer perception is not falling as far, or as fast, as Toyota's brand image did after it recalled 3.8 million vehicles from 2009-2010.

That's the finding of consultancy YouGov BrandIndex, which tracks consumer perception of brands. Over the past six weeks, GM's so-called Buzz Score dropped to -15 on March 25 from a +8 on Feb. 12. That marked GM's worst score in three years. It's even below the -12 in 2012 when the nation's largest auto-maker's hovered near bankruptcy.

YouGov's Buzz scores are measured by asking respondents if they've heard anything positive or negative about brands over the last two weeks via advertising, news or word of mouth. A brand's scores can range from -100 to +100, with a zero score spelling equal positive/negative feedback. Around 180,000 adults were interviewed in the survey with a margin of error of +/- of 3%.

Perhaps because GM is an American brand the company is so far taking less damage than Toyota during its recall crisis four years ago, according to YouGov spokesman Drew Kerr. Over the course of a single month, Toyota's brand plummeted from a +37 on Jan. 13, 2010 to -63 on Feb. 18, 2010.

It's taken Toyota nearly two years to recover. The auto maker's still not all the way back to pre-2010 levels. On Tuesday, Toyota measured +10 vs. highs in the 30s and 40s five years ago.

"Toyota was much further down in negative perception over the first four weeks," of its crisis he said. "GM is doing its best to catch up. But it's not there yet."

Before the ignition crisis, GM's image with consumers shopping for a vehicle had been rebounding nicely from the bad old days of the government bailout when critics derided the company as "Government Motors."

During March, the percentage of consumers who put GM on their shopping list when looking for a new car/truck dropped from 15% to 13%. Before the ignition crisis they were up to 16%. Said Mr. Kerr: "It's a slow, steady drop. But it's happening."

It took Toyota nearly two years to recover the goodwill of consumers after its recall crisis, according to YouGov research. But one thing Toyota did right was it "never stopped advertising," said Mr. Kerr. "I thought it was a smart strategy. They didn't duck for cover."

Since issuing the first recall on Feb. 13, GM's response has drawn the scrutiny of Congress, the U.S. Justice Department and other federal investigators.

The company said it is focusing on customer safety rather than brand perception. According to a GM spokesman, "GM's first focus is on ensuring the safety and peace of mind of our customers involved in the recall and fixing their vehicles. As Mary Barra said, GM will ultimately be measured on how it responds to the recall and takes care of its customers."

GM's stock is down nearly 14% since Ms. Barra took the helm Jan. 15. She'll travel to Capitol Hill next week to answer questions over why it took GM a decade to issue the recall.

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