Secrets of the 'Real People' Chevrolet Campaign

Team Behind Effort Shows How It 'Breaks Apart Apathy' For Brand

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Love them or hate them, Chevy's "Real People, Not Actors" ads are not going anywhere -- because the marketer is convinced they are working. And it's hard to ignore the evidence. One of the spots, for the Chevy Malibu, recently won the first-ever Automotive Tech Ad of the Year award from Nielsen. Meanwhile, Chevy parent General Motors last week reported that its first quarter profit surged 34% thanks to strength in the North American market.

The more than two-year-old campaign by Commonwealth/McCann enters its next phase this week with a new ad (above) for the 2018 Equinox, which recently began arriving at dealerships. The brand has stuck with actor Potsch Boyd, who plays the moderator in the focus-group style ads.

Ad Age recently caught up with Chevrolet U.S. Marketing VP Paul Edwards and Commonwealth/McCann Chief Creative Officer Gary Pascoe to talk about the campaign, including how Chevy plans to keep it fresh; how the brand finds those "real" people; and the strategy behind an Hispanic version that uses the same approach but a different moderator, Sergio Bruna.

Below, a lightly edited transcript from the interviews, which were conducted separately:

Do you ever get tempted to end this campaign?

Edwards: Deviating at this point would be reckless. We are now 25 months in and prior to this campaign it had been 30 years since we have had had a really unified market approach that everything was hanging together from Chevrolet. In the last 25 months we have learned a tremendous amount, not only on the campaign equities itself and how to fine tune it and keep it fresh, but also on the power of focus and alignment and consistency over time.

In a nutshell, describe the campaign's message.

Edwards: The recipe is exposing the real Chevrolet, today's Chevrolet. And the reason we start there is perceptions lag the reality of today's Chevrolet. So we have big job to do in terms of closing that perceptions gap.

We deliver that through a series of different provocations or experiments in the marketplace that are meant to engage people and designed to get them to react to Chevrolet … We found nothing is more emotive in terms of communicating today's Chevrolet than real people reacting to the realities of what we have today versus what their ingoing perceptions are.

So you are trying to shatter perceptions?

Edwards: Exactly.

Your sibling brand at GM, Buick, is also trying to shatter perceptions with its "That's a Buick?" marketing theme. How is Chevy's approach different?

Edwards: Our jobs are somewhat different. They may be battling a negative perception in the marketplace in that Buick was traditionally a brand for older people, whereas our job is to really break apart apathy for the Chevy brand. A lot consumers over the last 30 years have lost interest in the Chevy brand, and really the campaign is designed to start to chip away at that apathy and have people reconsider us, put us back on the consideration list because of all the great things we are putting on the road today.

Why would you say the campaign is working?

Edwards: It's young at heart. We don't take ourselves too seriously. The experiments are enjoyable to watch. We try to get the positive reactions from consumers which are plentiful. If you look at the work, people aren't tired of seeing it, they enjoy seeing it. The breakthrough levels are at record highs. People now when an ad starts running they recognize that, one, it's from Chevrolet; and two, they remember it more readily than other advertising.

This focus group style ad approach has been around forever. Some people might say it's old fashioned. What is your reaction to that?

Edwards: To call it a focus group, that is the way we started for sure, [but] we've expanded it in several different directions. For truck executions we've taken it to the work site. For Lego Batman we brought it to the animated world. In Equinox's case, we took it around the country. It's less of a focus group than it is getting real people to react to Chevrolet in a variety of different environments and a variety of different circumstances.

Do you even call them focus group ads?

Edwards: No, we call it 'real people not actors.'

How are you going to keep the campaign fresh in the coming months?

Pascoe: We don't hold ourselves to any rules like it's got to be this or that. For us, it's how are we going to surprise people. As we move forward I think you'll see new things where the focus group moderator will be a moderator in a focus group situation, or he may play a different role. He may go undercover as a valet. We've put him undercover as an Uber driver.

One of the things I really like and I think hints toward the future is the Lego execution we did where we parodied ourselves. We Lego-ized one of our commercials and instead of a Chevrolet it was the Chevy Batmobile. That is a real fun area creatively to play with when you are well-known and have been out there long enough that you can start playing with and having fun with the rules you set up yourself. I think that is a cool place to be where you can be a little bit self-referential.

Because this campaign has been running so long and has high awareness, do ever get people who walk in and recognize the moderator, Boyd, and figure out what is going on ahead of time?

Pascoe: You would assume that would happen every time, but in the 53 executions with hundreds and hundreds of people it's happened maybe twice, or three times maybe, out of like a thousand people. I think the reason is we go at length to really make these feel like as these people are coming in that it's a true focus group.

Part of it is too is these people walk in and we don't give them a lot of time to be reflective. Things start happening pretty immediately. They walk in, he says hi and then we get right at it. Something is going to pop out of the floor, or a giant bear is going to come running out, or something is going to happen creatively that gets them talking about the car and not the situation they are in.

How do you find these people?

Pascoe: We have street teams and we send them out looking for people. What we tell them is it's market research -- 'Would you like to be involved in a market research focus group?' And we don't tell them what it's about.

There is a fake set-up where they show up, they sign in … All of the production crew has T-shirts that say market research on it. It's kind of an elaborate ruse, if you will.

But legally you have to notify them at some point they are in an ad, right? How does that go?

Pascoe: Before they walk in they sign release forms.

Doesn't that give it away?

Pascoe: It's pretty standard practice because all focus groups are filmed so you have to sign as you go to just a regular focus group for any product.

But once it's over and they find out they will be in an ad, do they get compensated?

Pascoe: Yes.

Ad Age: The Hispanic version of the campaign (below) takes almost the exact same approach, albeit with a different moderator. How unique is it to have English and Spanish campaigns that are so similar?

Edwards: It's the first that I've seen it in my career. Because usually it's either something else, meaning it's a different approach, it's a different campaign it's a different agency or quite honestly in many cases it's an afterthought … In this case the Hispanic community is one of our top priorities and we knew that the campaign had to deliver to that audience.

Why do you think it works with both audiences?

Edwards: I think it's a universal truth in that the perception gap was there for Hispanic consumers as well and I think the recipe of real people reacting in a very authentic honest way to Chevrolet and being surprised and enjoying what we're putting on the road today is very, very powerful.

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