GM's Ewanick: Sell the Brands, Not the Deals

Marketing Chief Says Messaging Has to Catch Up to Improved Product

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DETROIT ( -- Joel Ewanick, 50, is rebuilding a marketing staff at General Motors Co. that has been shaken by last year's bankruptcy and subsequent turnover.

Mr. Ewanick said GM's brands must tell compelling stories and de-emphasize image-eroding campaigns designed simply to move metal.

Joel Ewanick
Joel Ewanick
He was interviewed Aug. 25 in Detroit by a team of Automotive News editors and reporters.

Auto News: What have you learned about GM marketing in your first 90 days?

Mr. Ewanick: Things are a lot better than you would imagine. Things have been going on here for six or seven years that you may not have been aware of. You are starting to see the design language that's specific to each of the brand channels.

You see in Cadillac a very distinct style. It's not a derivative of one of our competitors. And if you talk to consumers, that's what they want.

If you look at the product side, the underpinnings of the car, the same kind of discipline has been going on for a good five, six years. There is a language of performance for each brand and each model within the brand. If you don't have that language going on in product and styling, we're nowhere.

But we've been in sales mode for the better part of three years -- constantly doing sales events -- so we're not telling the story. We've got to get back to telling the story. What is the Chevrolet story? What do we want to tell people? People buy brands, they don't buy products. They buy into a brand. Chevrolet has a soul. That's something that we need to channel and use.

Auto News: For many years, Chevrolet did flag-waving, Americana, apple-pie advertising. Will that continue?

Mr. Ewanick: Will we be so overt about our Americana? Probably not. The nice thing about Chevrolet is that people know it's an American brand. We don't need to remind them of the obvious.

Auto News: Will product take care of itself? Or do you tell your team, let's just stick to our core messages?

Mr. Ewanick: The engineering staff has been doing its job for six or seven years now. They have a discipline on how they are developing the cars. Now marketing needs to develop that same discipline for each of the four channels. We have to make sure that we understand what Chevrolet is and tell that story.

Auto News: How do you support the current and reinstated dealers with marketing, including local marketing groups?

Mr. Ewanick: We're re-evaluating all of that. Our overall marketing effort this year and next year is back to where we were in '08 and '09. But then we had eight brands to feed. We only have four brands to manage now. That gives us an opportunity to invest in these brands like we haven't before.

Auto News: Any tangible examples of that?

Mr. Ewanick: You'll be able to tell the brand story -- and still tell a retail message, a special deal on Malibu.

Auto News: So will your local marketing groups get more money?

Mr. Ewanick: That's what we are re-evaluating now, how we go to market. My guess is yes.

Auto News: Do you need to do more social media?

Mr. Ewanick: Maybe we need to change the language. It's not media. It's social engagement. Aren't we causing a conversation? Media is when you buy television or print. This is more of a dialogue. We're going to do interesting things -- even this fall with the Cruze launch.

Auto News: What will your media mix look like? TV? Online?

Mr. Ewanick: I like television. Television is not dead. It drives a lot of traffic. We need to find a way to be more efficient in how we use television -- use it as a way to drive people to our Web sites and then use that to drive them to our dealerships. At the end of the day, isn't that what we are trying to do?

Let's take a look at Cadillac. This is a brand that we need to engage consumers and put it in places where they are not used to seeing it. So we're the automotive manufacturer of record for Northstar-at-Tahoe resort. They have summer and winter activities. We're going to allow people to take our cars out for test drives.

Auto News: Here's a simple question: What would you say is the secret to marketing cars?

Mr. Ewanick: Brands have to understand the customers and have empathy for what they are going through. Why would you want a Buick? Why would that make sense to me? That's what we are going through now, finding the right words, tone, mannerisms and visuals.

The magic bullet is really easy: understanding your customers better than the customers understand themselves. You have to understand their decision-making process. When you understand that, you can form your arguments and make it OK for them to put that Cadillac in their driveway.

What happens in our industry, there's so much information. If you are not careful, you can get caught up in how the watch is made instead of what time it is.

Auto News: Does that require a culture change at GM — to be less self-absorbed and more connected with popular culture?

Mr. Ewanick: Yes. And it will take time. Fortunately, you've got engineers looking at the driving characteristics of the car already doing that. And you've got guys looking at the styling already doing that.

Auto News: You have been talking a lot about cars. Do you have a pickup strategy?

Mr. Ewanick: Yes, we do. We will have some fun with it. I have a lot of friends with trucks. It's fun to observe them. It's fun to listen to the banter of truck people. Why can't we use that? If you equate it to a political campaign, there are two big camps [Ford and Chevrolet]. It has been that way for many years. We will find interesting, creative and hopefully funny ways to take advantage of that.

Auto News: How soon will we see that?

Mr. Ewanick: Likely October.

Auto News: Are there more changes coming in personnel?

Mr. Ewanick: Yes. My boss, Mark Reuss, asked me to bring people into the organization who will challenge the way we look at things. If you go through a war, you get too close to things and you forget. You forget to see things through the eyes of the consumer. And we have really great things that guys have invented and put in the cars that we just don't talk about.

I'm getting resumes from across the board. This is the time to reshape the most iconic brands in the industry. I think people want to be involved in that.

Auto News: Does Chevrolet need a tag or theme line?

Mr. Ewanick: No. I think the bow tie speaks for itself. And you'll see us use the bow tie prominently and proudly in everything we do.

Auto News: Does Buick need a tag or theme line?

Mr. Ewanick: They will have a campaign line that might become their theme line. When you show the bow tie, there's a resonance that happens that we don't have to tell you what it means. With Buick, we feel we still need to describe and define what that brand's about.

Auto News: Do you believe in halo cars?

Mr. Ewanick: Yes. The Corvette is one of the best-kept secrets. We should be using the Corvette to make a statement about Chevrolet. Tying the Corvette to Chevrolet is a beautiful thing. The Chevrolet brand has several halos. The Camaro could be a halo. You could look at the Volt as a halo product. I hope we turn the Cruze into a halo in that segment.

Chevrolet was built on iconic vehicles. You say SS to someone and they know exactly what you mean. Say Stingray, they know what you mean. Think of other brands, do they have those? Porsche has a few. Ferrari has a few. But some of our key competitors don't have many of those kinds of things. We're blessed with a cupboard full of vehicles that we can use.

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