Pontiac's Mark-Hans Richer Is All for Branded Entertainment -- If It Works

Tells Madison & Vine Conference That It's Not Enough to Just Chase Buzz

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- A lot of people were taking notes when former Coca-Cola President-Chief Operating Officer Steven Heyer issued a rallying cry four years ago for Hollywood and Madison Avenue to "collaborate or die." Pontiac's marketing director, Mark-Hans Richer, was in the audience. But years after putting what he heard into practice, Mr. Richer stressed one more point: Collaborating is great, but "it needs to count for something."
Mark-Hans Richer was the keynote speaker at the fifth annual Madison & Vine Conference.

"There is nothing magical about doing deals with Hollywood or with major brands. It only matters if it works," Mr. Richer said during a lively keynote speech today at the fifth annual Madison & Vine Conference. "There is nothing magical about being part of a cool online community. It only matters if it works. There is nothing magical about not doing TV ads or doing viral video ads instead. It only matters if it works."

Stop chasing buzz for buzz's sake

Mr. Richer said he would like to see more marketers stop chasing marketing buzz and instead focus on the results branded entertainment can offer. "It's not about chasing the buzz; it's about chasing the biz," he said, adding: "It is to the intersection of buzz and biz where our next focus needs to turn."

His remarks come as outspoken and risk-taking executives are being reprimanded or replaced for their high-profile actions -- executives who are trying to find new ways, especially through entertainment, to reach consumers without relying on the traditional 30-second spot. That hasn't escaped Mr. Richer's notice.

"This is a new golden age for marketers," Mr. Richer said. "The shackles are off, and the possibilities are literally endless. If we aren't conducting radical experiments, trying new ways to engage our targets and adding value to them, then we're not doing our jobs."

Like many marketing execs, the Pontiac exec isn't a fan of the term "branded entertainment." "What is 'branded entertainment' anyway?" he asked. "Define a commercial. What's a show? What's a community? None of these terms means much now. They're mutating, and they will mean even less tomorrow."

'Accountability' as a meaningless buzzword

Finding out whether something has worked can be just as difficult. Mr. Richer said "accountability" has become a meaningless buzzword of its own, and marketers are overwhelmed by "carpetbaggers" trying to sell metrics that may not mean anything for businesses.

Mr. Richer said General Motors, Pontiac's parent, spent years obsessing over metrics only to realize its primary measures for brand strength weren't correlated with sales effects. "You can't be accountable to metrics that don't prove anything," he said. "Find better ones, the ones that correlate with business results, both short and long term."

Mr. Richer also became the latest to contend there's a "new age of marketing," one in which consumers are in control.

"They always have been," Mr. Richer said. "They never had to watch our shows or our ads or anything else we believed we were force-feeding them. TiVo ad skipping is really no different than a remote or a walk out of the room to take a leak. ... Consumers now use words like 'positioning' and 'branding' in normal conversation and get angry if the advertising for their favorite product sucks because it's personally insulting to their identity. They can see through us. They practically are us. You might call them 'Santa Claus consumers': They see you when you're sleeping. They know if you're awake. They definitely know if you're bad or good. But do things right, and they'll bring you really great presents."

The consumer must come first

How brands try to reach consumers doesn't matter, Mr. Richer said. "It's the consumer first, not the property, the TV show, the movie, the music or the brand," he said, referring to Mr. Heyer's 2003 speech. What's needed is a "desire to create value for the consumer, not just value for ourselves."

Mr. Richer said he has been trying to adopt Mr. Heyer's ideas at Pontiac since joining GM in 2003. Pontiac's branded-entertainment experiments to return the brand "to its more progressive and exciting image" have included a TV movie about the GTO with USA Network to target young males; sponsoring a task on "The Apprentice"; a tie-in with FX's "Dirt"; producing rock concerts in Times Square and music sponsorships with "Jimmy Kimmel Live," Ludacris and Virgin; an NCAA Final Four video game; and the launch of the G6 on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

As for the results, Mr. Richer was only too willing to dish.

For the $8 million Pontiac spent on the G6 launch on "Oprah" in 2004, which included giving away 276 fully loaded G6s to audience members, the automaker received $110 million in promotional support, he said. Nearly 65% of consumers of the Grand Am, the G6's predecessor, were women, a base the company wanted to hold on to. In its first three quarters, the G6 outsold the Grand Am by 75%, for $5,000 more per unit. Customers were better-educated and an average of five years younger and $10,000 richer. G6 sales grew 20% in 2006, its second full year.

After the "Apprentice" episode aired, 1,000 Solstice roadsters were sold 41 minutes, and traffic to Pontiac's website jumped 1,400%. The sponsorship helped the Solstice overtake the Mazda Miata as the No. 1 selling roadster in America last year, the first time a domestic car has beaten an import.

A summer 2005 performance by Jet on the Pontiac Garage stage in Times Square was watched live by 55,000 people and by 1.5 million on "Jimmy Kimmel Live." The number jumped to millions more when the stage was set up for New Year's Eve. "Our sales and share were up in New York last year," Mr. Richer said.

Mr. Richer credits the use of entertainment for helping Pontiac make a comeback and attract new buyers for its vehicles. As for overall sales, Mr. Richer was candid about GM and Pontiac's latest slump and corporate troubles, saying they were addicted for many years to incentives and rebates and unprofitable sales to rental fleets, which weakened the brand and flattened resale values. "We were practically giving away cars to inflate our sales," he said. "Like steroids, it bulked us up for awhile, but the comedown has been hard. So we checked ourselves into rehab, a fashionable Madison or Vine thing to do."
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