LaNeve attacks mpg perception issue, homes in on brand message

'Marketing is a sport,' CEO argues as he tackles a combative, fragmented marketplace

Mark LaNeve spends savings from ad production on more intensive brand messaging.
Mark LaNeve is among a small number of General Motors marketers who've risen to a key executive position at the automaker. Mr. LaNeve, who joined GM in 1981 as a senior consumer service adviser at Cadillac, has been VP-vehicle sales, service and marketing for GM in North America since spring 2005.

Mr. LaNeve, 49, spent the bulk of his early career handling the Cadillac brand in various marketing and sales jobs. He moved to Pontiac in fall 1995 as Bonneville brand manager but left GM in 1997 to join Volvo Cars North America as VP-marketing, telling Advertising Age that the job would give him the chance to manage a brand at a high level. Three years later, Volvo promoted Mr. LaNeve to president-CEO.

In 2001, Mr. LaNeve returned to GM as general marketing manager of Cadillac after Ford Motor Co. acquired Volvo. He oversaw Cadillac's resurgence, and in fall 2004, GM promoted the married father of twin boys to GM North American VP-marketing and advertising. That year, the football-mad Mr. LaNeve told Ad Age: "To me, marketing is a sport, so you've got to figure out what your assets are, how to deploy them and what the competition has. There's no tried-and-true formula."

Mr. LaNeve recently discussed how the marketing game plan is going.

Why have there been so many ad agency changes at GM in recent years after such a long stretch of ongoing relationships that were some of the oldest in the industry?

I think it's probably appropriate to change every century. [Chuckles.] We made the Buick-Pontiac-GMC change because we wanted to get to one agency for the [retail] channel to make it easier for strategic planning since we truly are running it as one business.

Cadillac was a [lengthy] relationship, and we just felt we needed to have a different perspective outside Detroit because it was about to become a great, global luxury brand. Saturn jumped around some trying to find its sweet spot.

I don't like changing. It's risky. You can't be afraid to change—if you become an apologist for an agency or you're afraid, that's no good. It's a lot of work. You can also clean out the creative team without changing the agency, and we've done some of that, too.

What are the odds there will be more agency changes in the next five to 10 years?

I hope we're doing so good we won't have to make any. If you work with Campbell-Ewald every day, it's a very, very impressive agency. They are all truly good partners.

What are some of GM's biggest advertising/communications challenges?

Far and away, it's our perceptual gap. I could see in the data where we were making a lot of progress in our quality and reliability, and just about that time $4-a-gallon gasoline hit and now it's about fuel economy. The [Chevrolet] Malibu is every bit as fuel efficient as the [Honda] Accord and [Toyota] Camry. The [Chevrolet] Cobalt gets better mileage than the [Honda] Civic. People don't realize we have these vehicles with great fuel economy.

How do you change those misperceptions?

By great product execution. We had a perception in the '80s that our quality was not very good, and then we improved it. It took two generations of product before people realized it. We will communicate it very smartly in a way that's relevant to consumers.

One thing that's never going to change in our business is that the brand is the product execution, not the marketing. The vehicle itself is a rolling billboard.

The media can help you or hurt you. When I was at Cadillac, we had a great run from 2001-2005. During that time, there wasn't a bad article about Cadillac and that was a big part of [the turnaround]. With Hummer, there are tons of products like it. The Toyota Land Cruiser and 4Runner get worse mileage.

Why is digital so important in GM's ad plans now and going forward? What does that mean for other media like TV and newspapers?

The other media are important and have a place in our mix. They increasingly have to become more measurable because the natural instinct is to get a real precise ROI. Those other media are driving leads. I think even with all the discussion on digital, when we are on television, we tend to have more traffic to our websites. Part of the problem with TV is only about 3% of customers are in market at any given time, so 97% of your message is either wasted or in the long term is brand building. With digital you can really put yourself on a site like Edmunds.com, and you are talking to people in market. That's very comforting to me.

What are the benefits and disadvantages of having your media planning and buying at Publicis Groupe's GM Planworks?

The advantages are obvious. We've got scale so I know we are getting very good pricing. We differentiate among the brands. We get very good planners. We used to have a lot of brands mucking around in the same space. Now, college football is pretty much Chevrolet, and GMC mostly takes the NFL. Cadillac is in high-level places like the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards [GM later confirmed it won't be a sponsor of the 2009 Oscars], so we don't compete with each other.

What are the biggest changes you've seen during your years at GM in advertising, the ad and approval process, media, and budgets?

We're going through some of the biggest changes now. Over the past couple of years, we've dramatically reduced our ad production budgets. We felt we were on auto pilot. We do a lot more now on identifying brand messaging, on which models and only producing work we need to get the job done. We probably do a fraction of what we used to. ... When I came back to Cadillac in 2001, we were spending millions and millions of dollars in golf, and so was Buick. Now Buick has it all. We had both Pontiac and Chevrolet in NASCAR, so we've tightened up a lot of stuff.

Our sponsorship costs came down, and we've become more efficient. We've eliminated waste and cut some people, and we're going to have to tighten some more.

You can reach Jean Halliday at jhalliday42@gmail.com

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