Don't Expect to See Pontiac in Prime Time

Ad Chief Bets on Digital, Late-Night and Sports to Attract Younger Drivers

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Craig Bierley has three strikes against him.

The Pontiac marketing director is not only dealing with slumping sales and a shrinking ad budget. He's also succeeding Mark-Hans Richer, a high-profile marketing risk taker who left GM in July to become Harley-Davidson's first chief marketing officer.
Pontiac marketing director Craig Bierley
Pontiac marketing director Craig Bierley Credit: John F Martin

Yet Mr. Bierley is not all that different from Mr. Richer in one regard: He wants to take Pontiac deeper into the digital realm and rely less on mainstream media.

Out of the living room
To that end, Mr. Bierley has mined the web for a younger-skewing audience, beginning with programs such as a 12-day tie-in with Microsoft for the release of "Halo 3" in September. He's planning some innovative sports promotions with an existing partner, the NCAA. Where you will hardly ever find Pontiac, he said, is prime-time TV.

"I am not going to say we'll never do prime time, but we've got to be part of the content," said Mr. Bierley, who is working on an undisclosed product integration. Instead, he said, Pontiac is going where its target is: sports and late night, via a deal with ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live."

So just who is Pontiac's target? Younger drivers, who are buying in thanks to improved styling from the brand that gave us the Aztec (blessedly out of production since the end of 2004) along with new products such as the G5, launched last year in an online-only blitz. The median age of G5 owners is 43, the youngest for any Pontiac model, according to consultant Strategic Vision. The median age of all buyers across Pontiac's lineup is 50 -- not bad for a brand whose Montana minivan had a median buyer age of 64 in its last year, 2006.

More non-ad efforts
Mr. Bierley, who has been at GM since 1987, said about half his ad budget goes toward the G6 since the line accounts for roughly half the brand's sales.
Source: Automotive News

His measured-media budget fell from $240 million in 2005 to $147 million last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence. While national TV spending dropped to just under $80 million last year from $114 million, outlays for online ads (minus search and other non-ad efforts, such as the brand's entry into Second Life) rose to $14.5 million from half that amount two years earlier.

That's a mixed blessing for Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett, Detroit, which created TV ads for Pontiac's "Halo 3" programs, "First to Play" and "First to Own," and sibling Digitas, Boston, which handled promotions for Visitors played an unscrambling trivia game on the site to win one of 200 slots to play "Halo 3" at events in Manhattan and San Francisco. To be among the "First to Own," visitors played another online game, tracking down Pontiac's G6 GXP.

Digitas VP Victor Lee, who oversaw the program, said visits to jumped 20% during the promotion vs. the same period in 2006; traffic to the G6 site leapt 55%.

Half-court shot
Mr. Bierley said he wants to use another road-less-traveled scenario to launch the new G8 sedan using Pontiac's ongoing relationship with the NCAA during the college-basketball playoffs next year. He declined to reveal details, but in past years the brand has taken an integrated approach of TV ads during games, online gaming, internet ads and branded music.
Source: TNS Media Intelligence

Pontiac is "doing the right things with its products," said Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision, but "their communications may not be as successful." The brand hasn't been able to retain owners over the past decade, and only two of the six models in its lineup were around five years ago, he said.

Wes Brown, VP of consultant Iceology, gave GM credit for creating more-stylish models for Pontiac. But while the new styling may attract new people to consider Pontiac, the brand still has to bust old perceptions, find its turf and clearly communicate it after GM allowed the "brand to flounder for so long," he said. Mr. Brown said he hopes GM sticks to its strategy for Pontiac even if sales continue to drop.

GM said it has sold 301,771 Pontiacs through October, a 14% drop from the same period last year, but its sales have been trending downward for a decade (see chart).
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