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Can 'Chevy Runs Deep' Sell Big?

Critics Say the Campaign Is Too Much Brand, Not Enough Product

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The 'Chevy Runs Deep' campaign has received lots of criticism. Some say it errs in emphasizing branding over product. Others say it fails to give rational reasons to buy a Chevy.

But Kevin Mayer, advertising and promotions director for the brand, argues that the push, which is nearing its one-year anniversary, is doing exactly what General Motors and its agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, intended: It's a campaign "anchored on heritage, but not incumbent on heritage."

And for Chevrolet, it's much more than a tag line. Unapologetically American and "flexible by design," according to Mayer, "Chevy Runs Deep" is a "way to really, really strive to directly connect with our customers."

Chevy Runs Deep ad
Chevy Runs Deep ad

The goal is to tie the brand's legacy from the 1950s and 1960s to today's technology story. The centennial "Chevy Runs Deep" documentary-style commercial voiced by actor Tim Allen debuted in last year's Major League Baseball World Series. It describes the strength of the American character and deems Chevrolet "an expression of the best of it." Other heritage ads followed, using snapshots of classic Chevy cars and trucks. Babies and dogs were pictured to evoke consumer love for the Chevy of decades past.

The push also played on advertising's biggest stage -- the Super Bowl -- contrasting with Chrysler's more modern play on Americana, which featured hip-hop performer Eminem. "The Chrysler ad was risky, out there, swung for the fences," said CEO Jeremy Anwyl. "'Chevy Runs Deep' is a safer pathway, designed to achieve a series of base hits."

But are base hits enough?

Cruze sets the pace
The automaker's benchmark for success is whether "Chevy Runs Deep" is shifting brand perception enough that more people are putting Chevrolet on their list when they are ready to buy a new car. And by that measure, "we're in a happy place," said Mayer, who is part of a team led by Joel Ewanick, General Motors head of global marketing, and a fresh crop of management, each of whom played major roles in Hyundai's U.S. marketing recovery. The Chevy brand has 36 percent consideration, a 16 percent uptick since the troubled year of 2008, according to research firm AutoPacific Inc.

With $527 million in U.S. measured media advertising spent in the first quarter of the year, according to Kantar Media, Chevrolet is spending and selling aggressively. From November 2010, just after the campaign began, through September 2011, sales increased by 210,450 units, according to the Automotive News Data Center. The same data showed a 15 percent increase within the 11-month period year over year during the campaign.

Chevy Runs Deep ad
Chevy Runs Deep ad

But product, rather than marketing, is being given much of the credit for sales growth. The Cruze, launched at the same time the "Chevy Runs Deep" ad campaign started, is the biggest sales success in Chevy's stable of passenger cars. The Cruze -- helped in part by short inventories of the Toyota Corolla, the perennial segment leader -- has been the top seller in the small-car segment since April.

Dennis Bulgarelli, director of the automotive practice at research firm Compete Inc., says the Cruze hit the right market at the right time. "With imports having issues with delivery, the American sedans are benefiting," Bulgarelli said. "In this segment, Chevy and Hyundai have a lot in common -- both were an afterthought, but are now major players."

Chevrolet feels it can ignore the negative chatter of critics comparing "Chevy Runs Deep" with the grand themes of the past, such as "Heartbeat of America" and "Like a Rock." Mayer points to success in the new marketing world of today's 24/7 media. "We have had a lot of success in the digital space," he said.

But Jessica Hogan, a J.D. Power and Associates analyst who has monitored the social media aspect of the campaign since it began, said "Chevy Runs Deep" has not moved the needle for the brand. "Out of nearly 3 million comments regarding Chevrolet, only 0.5 percent, 12,000 people, had any reaction at all to the advertising," she said.

According to Hogan, this percentage falls well short of the average of 2 percent to 5 percent.

Customer connection
Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision Inc.'s automotive division, tested the ads with consumers and says Chevrolet missed an important opportunity to get the maximum result from the campaign. "Because of what they've been through [with the government bailout of parent GM] Chevy needs to make sure the product is first and foremost in the ads. If BMW, for instance, had the problems Chevy had, it would be meaningless to consumers if they came out with a broad theme -- consumers would want to see the product and how it had improved."

In Mayer's eyes, the opportunity is in emphasizing brand over product. "You can always be outstaged or outnumbered when it comes to products, so what we really wanted was to connect with customers on a personal level."

The question is how deep Chevy is connecting so far. Ewanick told Automotive News that while he has seen Grade A work from Goodby on Chevy, it hasn't been consistent. "I'm really happy with them in general," he said. But "to get an A, you have to be consistent. That's more of C and B work when you can't find the consistency."

Chevy's Mayer attributes the statement to Ewanick motivating the team to do better. "Joel is just continually challenging all of us to improve. I think he has very high standards, and he wants us to continue to push ourselves."

On the West Coast, selling Chevrolet products to a younger audience is a particular challenge. Bruce Hamlin, who owns Guaranty Chevrolet in Santa Ana, Calif., said, "In the West, we've lost brand consideration. Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and Kia -- the kids think these are cool brands. Cars are an extension of the person. With 'Chevy Runs Deep,' they seem to be building some national consideration, but does it resonate with only older, but not younger people?"

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