Chevrolet has battled Ford in pickup war for decades
In some of the loudest salvos in their decades-long pickup war, Chevrolet and Ford full-sized trucks faced off during the 1980s in advertisements of death-defying feats as each sought to prove superiority.
If a pickup wasn't towing a string of railroad freight cars, it was challenging the Ditch of Doom or the Tower of Power. Behind the scenes, legal teams faced off. Each side wanted verification of the claims the other had made.
Comparison ads have always been and probably always will be a weapon in the pickup war.
Ford Motor Co.'s F-series pickup is dug in as the best-selling vehicle in the United States. Chevy's full-sized pickup, the Silverado, is entrenched at No. 2, well ahead of Chrysler's Ram, the GMC Sierra and more recent Japanese entries.
Chevy took the top spot for a few years in the early 1970s, but the rankings soon returned to their traditional order.
Some historians say that because of Henry Ford's vision of bringing the automobile to rural America, not just to the urban elite, Ford set up an extensive network of rural dealers before Chevrolet. That helped build loyalty, which for years gave it an edge in rural pickup markets.
Whatever the reason, the main battle has been Chevy vs. Ford, with the other players on the periphery.
Preaching to the choir
The Chevy vs. Ford ads reached their bombastic peak in the 1980s. The ads were fun, but they didn't really work. Truck marketers knew the ads were more about preaching to the choir than converting unbelievers.
"I don't think anyone switched brands," says Kurt Ritter. He was marketing manager for Chevy trucks from 1990 through 1995. He later became the Silverado's vehicle line executive, then Chevy's general marketing manager and eventually Chevrolet's general manager.
"Making fun of the competitors' owner base is not the way to conquest. What we want to do is discover the truth of our products and tell it in a compelling way," he says.
Bill Ludwig, CEO of Chevy's former longtime ad agency Campbell-Ewald, says the ads tended to be "about the company talking at the consumers, not with them."
Ludwig spent 29 years on the Chevrolet account, much of it pitching trucks. He wasn't naive about what the research showed him pickup owners believed. Ask a Chevy pickup owner what he thought, Ludwig says, and the reply often ran along these lines: "I'm a Chevy guy. Ford's a fine truck; Dodge is a fine truck. Anything I need to haul, they'll haul."
A Chevy owner also might concede that Dodge had an edge in styling, while Ford packed its pickups with more technology. But Chevy pickup owners viewed their trucks in a way that transcended towing capacity and horsepower.
And once Chevrolet and its ad agency started listening intently to those owners, Chevy began fighting the war on new fronts.
"What these guys will tell you," Ludwig says, is that the Chevy pickup is "your basic, get-'er-done truck." Styling and technology didn't matter to Chevy owners as much as a pickup's dependability -- it does the job day after day. "It's more of the soul of the truck that's differentiating to these guys."
Chevy owners wanted features that worked for them, and they wanted real talk, not over-the-top claims.
On the performance front, that meant getting a powerful diesel engine and the right transmission, Ritter says.
"Competitors had run us off," he recalls. Ford had International Harvester's PowerStroke diesel, while Dodge had a diesel from Cummins Inc. Chevy turned to General Motors affiliate Isuzu Motors Ltd. and branded its diesel the Duramax. GM's Allison Transmission Division supplied heavy-duty trucks and "had a great reputation," Ritter says. Chevy paired the Isuzu diesel with the Allison transmission and had a winner. "We were instantly out of them. We had to increase tooling to get additional diesel engines," he says.
Next, Chevrolet realized that while Ford might have a technology lead because of its stronger position in commercial pickups (a role that GMC played at GM), Chevy had its own strength.
"Chevy always had an advantage when it came to personal-use half-ton pickups," Ritter says. That was because of the Chevrolet Suburban, which had been around since 1935. "We understood independent front suspension and a carlike ride."
Chevy's focus on personal-use pickups led to a crucial decision: build more extended cabs.
"We understood cab mix in the late 1980s and early '90s, when the consumer was willing more and more to give up bed space for cab space. We made mix changes in plants, which were expensive, to include a mix of extended cab," says Ritter. "That sounds unimpressive, unimportant, but it was a big issue early on. We were always running out of extended cabs."
In the early 1990s, he says, "you didn't need incentives on extended cabs, but we did need them on regular cabs because the industry hadn't made the switch. We went from 5 percent of build to almost 60 percent of build within five years, and we should have done it earlier."
Chevy's first attempt to tone down its ads was a 1990 ad known as "Ford County." It featured real pickup owners from Ford County, Ill. -- where Chevy trucks outsold Ford -- talking in their rural drawls about their pickups in very technical language. One diner waitress, refilling a coffee cup, said she could see "the Bauhaus influence" in the Chevy pickup's styling.
But the real breakthrough came in 1991. "We had just come out of the truck wars, where for three years everyone had done mudslinging-type comparison ads, so the consumer was ready for something more uplifting," Ritter says.
Chevy decided to engage with its pickup buyers on their terms.
Ludwig recalls: "We said to truckers, 'We know what's at stake with you and your truck. You're like a rock to your friends. You need a truck you can depend on and that shares your values.'"
Chevy's "Like a Rock" campaign was born.
"It showed Chevy gets it and understands that the consumers are everyday heroes," Ludwig says. As an advertisement connecting with its audience, "we kind of reinvented the language and cracked the code."
Campbell-Ewald was "very, very careful with 'Like a Rock,'" he recalls. If the message was to be authentic, the execution needed to be so, too. The ad agency went to job sites and filmed actual people using their pickups. When TV viewers saw bags of lime being dropped into the pickup bed, it was because that really happened.
Ritter says: "We understood the essence of the Chevy truck brand -- that although maybe it was not the most technologically advanced truck on the road, or the fastest truck on the road, they held together. They lasted forever."
In 1987, Ford's F series had outsold its Chevy rival by 131,904 units, 550,125 to 418,221. In 1993, "Like a Rock" helped to push Chevy Silverado sales up to 544,373, narrowing the gap to just 20,716.
But nothing lasts forever, unless it's a pickup war. Chevy dropped the "Like a Rock" campaign in 2004 after 13 years. In 2004 Chevy sold 680,768 Silverados, but Ford sold 939,511 F-series trucks. With Chevy trailing by 258,743 units, it was time to bring a new weapon to the front.
The war continues to run. So do Chevy pickups.
Mark Rechtin contributed to this report
You can reach James B. Treece at email@example.com.