Time Running Out on GM's Second Chance

Viewpoint: Automaker's Advertising Has Failed to Impress Since Bailout

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Mike Jackson
Mike Jackson
Who among us didn't salivate a bit when General Motors came out of bankruptcy and focused on a new mission in terms of marketing and gaining consideration? For that matter, what shop didn't wish it could get in there, roll up its sleeves and execute a plan worthy of the challenge? Immediately out of Chapter 11, GM had a unique opportunity. First, all eyes were focused on senior management and their next action steps. Second, the American public, though a bit upset at the bailout, was nonetheless forgiving and ready to see what would happen next. Finally, GM had what we all have in life, a second chance -- a chance at redemption of colossal proportions.

And what happened? Opportunity lost.

The company continues to shuffle the deck chairs in the management ranks, but most key leadership positions in marketing and across the entire company are populated with GM lifers.

As for changes in GM's marketing, this is where it continues to struggle. Company executives and their advertising agencies are addicted to TV commercials and taglines. The initial response post-bankruptcy was to launch a multimillion-dollar (GM-branded) TV and print ad blitz, entitled "Reinvention." Needless to say it was puzzling and short lived. Following that fiasco were new Buick ads featuring an L.A. "Fashionista." The ad-about-an-ad was so bad that it left everyone associated with it, including the ad agencies, seemingly running for cover.

Next up was another multimillion-dollar GM brand campaign featuring the new chairman, Ed Whitacre. Many in the ad world believe the ad starring the 67-year-old Whitacre hurts the Detroit automaker's efforts to freshen up its image and woo younger buyers.

After Vice Chairman Bob Lutz vehemently opposed the original "new" Buick ads for the 2009 Lacrosse showing the car as star of fashion shoot, the GM marketing team came up with another multimillion-dollar campaign with an all new tagline, "The New Class of World-Class." The primary media continues to feature print and television because, as Lutz told Automotive News, "today's buyer still tends to be 35 or 40 years old and probably doesn't spend much time on the internet and still needs and watches television."

And finally the current multimillion-dollar campaigns created for Chevy, Cadillac, Buick, and GMC by McCann Erickson, Detroit, feature the GM 60-day guarantee, and the premise "May the best car win." GM ran nearly identical back-to-back magazine spreads for the Buick LaCrosse, Chevy Malibu and Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon in which the ads are mirror images of one another, simply with a different car. They ran in consecutive front pages of the magazines. GM also proclaimed success because, as Lutz told Automotive News, "Out of hundreds of thousands, the people who've selected the 60-day guarantee were in the hundreds ... we've had one substantiated return of a vehicle. He brought it back because he made a mistake."

In all, GM has spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on at least five separate ad campaigns (predominantly TV and print) over the past six months!

GM's answer to the above is to put the Cadillac and Chevy brands up for agency review. To add such unnecessary complexity at this critical time will focus the leadership on everything but changing perception and increasing demand.

Time is running out for GM. Its competitors, Ford, Toyota, Audi, Honda, and Hyundai smell blood. If you look back at the integrated plan that Mediacom executed for Audi during the inauguration or the current Honda campaign by RPA, "Everyone knows someone who loves a Honda," on Facebook, you see the competition is evolving very quickly.

To increase demand for the Chevy, GMC, Buick, and Cadillac brands, GM must redefine and simplify the consumer target into three categories for each brand: Gen Y, first time buyers; Conquests (import owners) and Domestic Loyalists. It must then develop separate demand-building strategies and tactics for each. TV and print should be viewed as a bolt on to gain reach and frequency, if necessary. Responsibility for media planning should go to the brands' creative shops and resources should refocus against those target groups as follows:

-- Gen Y, first time buyers: Create an integrated campaign comprised of cinema, search, social media, and tactical programs such as free weekend test-drives.

-- Conquest (import owners): Develop an integrated media mix focused on showcasing the product and offer free weekend test-drives via a third party. Eliminate the current strategy of comparative ads. (Buick to Lexus; Chevy to Honda; Mini to GMC Terrain). While the ads may be credible from a factual standpoint, they continue to alienate import owners.

-- Domestic Loyalists: Engage, reward, and celebrate current owners via CRM initiatives and social media like Facebook. Create a network of owners as ambassadors and forge a two-way dialogue with them. Implement a "trade-in guarantee" program to eliminate concerns by consumers whether GM is going to make it or what this vehicle going to be worth three to five years from now.

Finally, changing the culture is a must. GM must become a real partner to its agencies and stop the threats and pointing fingers. There is a dire need to infuse outside marketing talent inside and outside of the company. With all of the fresh talent available in these turbulent times for the ad business, GM should be able to find great people. Unless the company moves fast, years from now, business school students will be analyzing a new case study of the demise of an American icon.

Mike Jackson, a former VP-advertising and marketing for North America at GM, is currently a partner at digital creative agency SarkissianMason, New York.
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