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Chevy's Most Enduring Advertising Campaigns: How the Ideas Took Root

Ad Executives for the Brand Look Back on Their 'Greatest Hits' Portfolio

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Chevrolet's ad executives were instrumental in campaigns that still resonate with consumers. Here, some of them, now retired from Chevy marketing, reflect on how the ideas developed.

The Heartbeat of America (1986-93)
When Dannielle Hudler (previously Colliver) began as Chevy's advertising director, the division was retiring "Today's Chevrolet" and getting ready for its next big campaign. Her only direction to Sean Fitzpatrick and Bill Ludwig, who developed the campaign at Campbell-Ewald, was to keep the all-American theme.

One theme the agency floated was "The Heartbeat of America."

"We all just liked it," she said, since it expressed the essence of Chevy.

Ludwig selected the music of composer Robin Batteau, impressed by its "anti-jingle approach."

Hudler said, "The music embodied the campaign. It would have been good, but not great, without that music."

It became so popular that a Vietnam vet asked if Hudler could send him the music so it could be played at his wedding. "That's when you know you've touched people," she said.

Jim Perkins, Chevrolet's general manager at the time, called it an "extreme ad campaign" that cut across the entire product line.

Dealers embraced it so much that they wanted the right to continue with it even after GM decided to move to another campaign. Said Perkins: "We had to put our foot down and say you can't do it."

Genuine Chevrolet (1994-99)
The goal was to develop an umbrella scene for the Chevy family to live under, so that each nameplate could be defined broadly in an image-based campaign, said Jim Jandasek, Chevrolet's car ad manager from 1991 to 2004.

"It was how we dealt with the product portfolio not being as strong as we would have liked," he said.

Campbell-Ewald selected the phrase "Genuine Chevro-let" to represent a residual love of the brand.

Jandasek said it was a "reasonably successful" campaign, though not nearly as effective as "Like a Rock" or "The Heartbeat of America."

Like a Rock (1992-2004)
Chevrolet was trying to find a way to capitalize on the fact that its trucks held up for a long time.

Chevrolet General Manager Kurt Ritter, Chevy truck ad director Mac Whisner and Chevrolet Marketing Director Jeff Hurlbert spent six months researching Chevy's attributes, Ritter said.

Hurlbert said the goal was to "clean the slate and look at how we could move into a new theme line."

Campbell-Ewald was told to develop a campaign to communicate the truck's promise of durability in a meaningful, emotional way. Whisner recalls that the music was selected when Don Gould, Campbell-Ewald's truck creative director, was listening to a Bob Seger album and heard the song "Like a Rock." He thought it was a perfect way to embody the truck's toughness, and also suggested the owners were strong and self-reliant.

"I thought 'Like a Rock' was over the moon," Ritter said. "It captured the physicality of the truck," the independence of the truck buyer and the vehicle's durability. The campaign tested well among focus groups.

One man named Fred, a focus group participant who was vocal about his love for Toyota, said that hearing it made him want to go out and buy a Chevy. Said Whisner: "We called the tape of that group 'the Fred tape' and always included the tape as part of the presentation to show how dramatically the ad made a difference."

Said Hurlbert: "The people reacted so positively to it that we knew we had a home run."

A fundamental obstacle remained: persuading Seger to give permission to use the song. Initially he refused, not wanting it to be used in a commercial. After trying to persuade Seger's manager, Punch Andrews, for four months, Whisner was ready to give up when he got a call from Andrews agreeing to use the song in return for creative input on all the commercials.

What had changed? Whisner said that Seger was in a bar in Detroit when someone asked him, "When are you going to do something for the auto workers?" Whisner said the timing of that comment was just right.

Malibu: The Car You Knew American Could Build (1997)
This was one of the campaigns launched under the management of Ron Zarrella, General Motors' so-called brand czar who decided that each car line was a brand and ought to have its own marketing plan. Jim Heckert became the Chevrolet Malibu's brand manager.

"We were trying to establish ourselves as a legitimate small car," Heckert said, answering Zarrella's directive to find a product's reason for being. He said research showed Americans wanted to buy American-made products -- if they could trust them.

"They wanted an American company to succeed, but weren't going to do it unless they had a good feeling we could deliver," he said.

It took six months of research and getting to know the customer to develop the tag line, "Malibu: The car you knew America could build."

Heckert had a $75 million to $80 million advertising budget, a healthy sum for one product line. But "this was a very important product, since we needed a volume car."

The Malibu ended up being Motor Trend's Car of the Year for 1997. "The ads were really powerful," Heckert said, focusing on messages of dependability, reliability, styling and price.

An American Revolution (2004-08)
When Kim Brink (formerly Kosak) began as ad manager for Chevy trucks, the brand was embarking on what she calls "an unprecedented product renaissance": 10 products in 20 months.

The assignment was to develop a campaign to bring cars and trucks together, announcing to the world a change in attitude and direction at Chevy.

Unlike "Like a Rock," which was a strategic brand positioning campaign about a man and his truck and the bond between them, "We didn't have a core value to communicate," she said.

Chevy had been a conservative brand, she says, and the agency "came back with things that broke the mold." Playing upon the product renaissance theme, Campbell-Ewald came up with "An American Revolution."

"I fell in love with it immediately," Brink recalled. "You just knew it was right. It was everything we were looking for."

But not everyone was so quick to embrace it. She said that some were concerned that customers would perceive "An American Revolution" as negative. She remembers traveling on a plane with Campbell-Ewald's creative director, Bill Ludwig. "I said 'Bill, do you really believe in this?' He said 'I do.' And then I said 'I'm going to sell this thing.'"

She started showing it to dealers to get their support. One said, "This is the best thing I've ever seen come out of Chevrolet."

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