GM's New Spin: Buy a Hummer, Save Humanity

New Campaign Aims to Rescue SUV's Image by Highlighting Its Exploits

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DETROIT ( -- Megan Stooke is a realist.

"Our brand has always been polarizing, and we've always said we are not for everybody," said the marketing director of General Motors Corp.'s Hummer macho SUV line, which has been swept up in almost a perfect storm of volatile gas prices, the war in Iraq and the rise in environmental consciousness.

'HUMMER HEROES': The campaign will show how rescue workers, among others, rely on the vehicle to help them help those in need.

"The brand came to represent an icon for all things evil."

The Australia native is out to bust that notion by reminding consumers that Hummer exists for a reason. Three new-model TV spots, plus print and online work from independent agency Modernista, Boston, aim to position the vehicle as a force for good. Ms. Stooke calls the campaign "Hummer Heroes," and it portrays how rescue workers and owners rely on Hummers to help others. In a few weeks, the GM brand will launch a microsite, Hummer Helps, that will encourage owners to send in stories and photos that illustrate how they assisted the needy with their SUVs.

Getting actual rescue footage with Hummers could be difficult, Ms. Stooke said. Many of the hundreds of owners interviewed last month as part of her annual "brand health" research don't want to promote themselves and don't carry cameras with them in such instances. She recalled one owner's comment during the research: "Nobody asked me what kind of fuel economy I was getting" when delivering water via Hummer to Hurricane Katrina victims in remote locations.

Back to the roots
Mark LaNeve, VP-sales, service and marketing for GM in North America, said, "It's obvious to some, but not to others, that these vehicles are designed to do a very specific task. And in the pure physics of that engineering, you get great capability." That's why some of the new ads aim to show that Hummers are built for a purpose, he said. "They are what they are because they can do what they can do."

Another TV spot, dubbed "Bandages," aims to show off the vehicle's newness; different features of the 2008 H3 are revealed as tons of white gauze is unwrapped. A third spot goes back to the roots of Hummer advertising with a spot reminiscent of a video game to showcase the playful side of the new H3 Alpha, its V-8 engine and more towing power.

GM acquired the rights to the Hummer name, civilian-vehicle development and marketing in 1999 from AM General Corp., which still makes military vehicles. GM said U.S. Hummer sales dropped nearly 20% in the first nine months of 2007 to 42,760 vehicles through September vs. a year ago. Last June, GM stopped making its first Hummer, the big, military-inspired H1, but still sold 116 of them this year. The automaker reported selling 9,355 of its H2 models and 33,289 of the smaller H3 SUVs through September.

Cutting back spending
As Hummer's fortunes began to slide, so did ad spending. GM backed Hummer with $33 million in U.S. measured media in the first six months of 2007, a little more than half the $59 million it spent during the same period a year ago, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Hummer received $113 million in measured media in calendar 2006, TNS figures show. Publicis Groupe's dedicated GM Planworks plans and buys media.
Source: Automotive News

Ms. Stooke said the sales falloff is consistent with what is happening in the big SUV segment and pointed to H3's share growth this year in a declining category. Hummer is important to GM because 69% of its buyers are new to GM and it has the youngest median-age buyer, 43, of the carmaker's eight vehicle brands.

Fran O'Hagan, president of auto consultant Pied Piper Management Co., said few vehicle brands stand out the way Hummer does or are as well defined. The former SUV product manager-strategist from Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar said fashion-conscious buyers propelled Hummer from a niche brand to the mass market. But when that glow passes, it pushes a brand back into a specialty brand. "The magic trick for Hummer," said Mr. O'Hagan, "is to turn its broad awareness into people who want to buy the products."

Adventure types
Ms. Stooke said Hummer buyers have been early adopters, some "style-leader types and fashion-oriented types." But now the GM brand is also talking more to serious off-roaders and adventure types in its marketing.

The first years of GM's Hummer advertising established a personality for the brand that didn't take itself too seriously, said Ms. Stooke. (Remember the 2003 "Happy Jack" spot with the H2-looking wooden soapbox-derby racer?) The "Heroes" work aims to humanize the brand and takes a more serious approach. One of the coming TV spots will use real newspaper headlines from disasters, such as a tornado rescue in Colorado.
Megan Stooke, marketing director of General Motors Corp.'s Hummer SUV line
Megan Stooke, marketing director of General Motors Corp.'s Hummer SUV line

Ms. Stooke is using more targeted media too, with TV buys on sports, news and news-oriented talk shows. Magazine titles include ESPN, People, Outside, Ski, Vanity Fair, Wired and Food and Wine.

Since 2004, GM has donated 19 Hummers to Red Cross chapters around the U.S., with the latest delivered last month as part of a six-year commitment to provide a total of 72 Hummers and contribute $600,000. They have been used in disaster relief, including flooding in New York and wildfires in California.

"The unparalleled capabilities of a Hummer make them the ideal disaster-response vehicle," said Martin Walsh, the brand's general manager.
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