GM Taps Mahoney to Navigate Chevy's 'New Roads'

Brand Hopes CMO, a Subaru and VW Alum, Will Be Stabilizing Force

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Tim Mahoney, Chevrolet's new global marketing chief, knows something about sparking struggling brands and focusing confused marketing.

Tim Mahoney
Tim Mahoney
When he returned to Subaru of America in 2006 -- his second stint with the company -- he found a brand that had lost its way. Executives in Japan had upped sticker prices, aspiring to become the Japanese BMW. Marketing consisted of a mishmash of campaigns.

A quiet man with a wicked sense of humor, Mr. Mahoney and the team slashed prices and stopped using celebrities in Subaru's advertising. New ads concentrated on the brand -- mixed with a bit of goofiness. Subaru's market share has been surging ever since, and Mr. Mahoney has become a hot commodity.

Now 56, he comes to General Motors after a two-year stint at high-flying Volkswagen of America. That was preceded by Subaru and a successful run at Porsche Cars North America.

At GM, Mr. Mahoney will be charged with unifying Chevy's splintered global marketing under the newly adopted "Find New Roads" campaign, which GM expects to underpin its largest brand for many years. GM also needs Mr. Mahoney to become a stabilizing force for a Chevy marketing enterprise that has been plagued by executive turnover and criticized as aimless.

Mr. Mahoney began his automotive career in 1984 as a marketing-research analyst for Subaru of America. In the mid-1990s, he was part of the team that revived the brand by shifting all of its vehicles to all-wheel drive and giving it more recognition with ads featuring Australian actor Paul "Crocodile Dundee" Hogan and tennis star Martina Navratilova.

In 1999, Mr. Mahoney moved to Porsche as head of marketing, overseeing the launch of the Cayenne, Porsche's first SUV. He was a good fit at Porsche. He had lived in Austria and Germany as a student, was fluent in German and embraced Porsche's engineering-driven culture.

Subaru called in 2006, seeking help in getting the brand back on track. Mr. Mahoney ditched the celebrity ads that had included Lance Armstrong and Sheryl Crow. He focused on the tagline "It's what makes a Subaru a Subaru" and the much-copied "Love" campaign, in which owners talked about why they loved their cars.

And he kept his innovative approach. While other automakers fought it out during the Super Bowl, Subaru began sponsoring the Animal Planet Puppy Bowl in 2010.

"Not one dealer asked us why we weren't in the Super Bowl," Mr. Mahoney said in 2011.

With Subaru's sales soaring, he was named chief marketing officer of Volkswagen of America in May 2011.

Mr. Mahoney oversaw the successful launch of the U.S.-built Passat in 2011. Last year, the VW division sold 438,133 units, up 35%, far outpacing the overall market.

At VW, he kept the focus on "the Power of German Engineering" and stuck with offbeat humor in the advertising. A video tease to VW's 2012 Super Bowl commercial featured dogs dressed as characters from "Star Wars" barking out the movie's "Imperial March."

At Chevy, Mr. Mahoney will have a much larger scope. Elevating the Chevy brand into a true global player is a central goal of GM CEO Dan Akerson. Last year, he encouraged Joel Ewanick, then GM marketing chief, to execute a massive consolidation of Chevrolet's creative ad agencies from dozens to just one, Detroit's Commonwealth.

GM also consolidated its global media-buying duties under London-based Aegis' Carat unit. Mr. Mahoney will handle media buying for all GM brands under his dual role as marketing operations leader.

Mr. Mahoney will enter a management structure that is in flux. He'll report to Alan Batey, a high-energy Brit who serves as both head of GM's U.S. sales and interim global chief marketing officer. It's unclear whether Mr. Batey will remain as chief marketing officer, whether someone else will get the job or whether it will go unfilled.

Also, Mr. Akerson has said he's considering the appointment of an executive to run Chevy globally, similar to the setup he installed recently when he tapped Bob Ferguson as global VP of Cadillac.

Taking on marketing responsibilities for the sprawling brand is a big job. Last year, global Chevy sales hit a record 4.95 million units across 140 countries and represented 54% of GM's global sales.

And Chevy is embarking on the busiest vehicle-launch schedule in the brand's 102-year history. It will roll out 13 new or redesigned models in the United States this year, including its next-generation Silverado pickup, and plans another dozen rollouts overseas.

It's a challenge even for the most seasoned marketing veteran.

Mr. Mahoney on more than one occasion has called himself a dinosaur in the auto advertising and marketing world because he has been at it since 1984. In fact, after joining VW, he expressed surprise that his career had lasted as long as it had: "Chief marketing officer life expectancy is measured like babies in months. I have been doing this since I was 39. I have seen it all."

Diana T. Kurylko and Mike Colias write for Automotive News.

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