DETROIT -- For a glimpse of Chevrolet's future advertising direction, flip on the TV pretty much any time during the 17-day Winter Olympics starting Friday, when Chevy will dominate coverage with 11 new commercials broadcast more than 400 times.
Chevy's Olympic ad blitz has the feel of a new marketing campaign, even though it's not -- its Find New Roads theme debuted one year ago. But it's clear that the wave of commercials bears the imprint of new marketing chief Tim Mahoney, who arrived at Chevy in April from Volkswagen of America.
Mahoney inherited Find New Roads and says he embraces it, insisting that Chevy's marketing badly needs consistency after years of false starts. But after spending several months last year sizing up his new brand, he concluded that Chevy's recent messaging needed to strike a more emotional chord.
And Mahoney is frank about a problem that dealers and critics have been citing for years: Chevy's new vehicles can compete against the best, but they are hamstrung by a weak brand image.
"One of the things that still holds us back a little bit is the brand ... the perceptions of what Chevrolet is," Mahoney told reporters last week during a group interview at GM's headquarters here.
The spots lined up for the Olympics offer a blueprint for how Mahoney hopes to redraw those perceptions. He uses terms like "authentic," "optimistic" and "young at heart" to describe Chevy's latest creative work. The word "new" comes up a lot.
Many of the commercials are full of real people and families. Some include snippets of personal videos plucked from social media. Last fall, the debut commercial for the all-important 2014 Silverado pickup campaign featured carpenters, farmers and other tradesmen who were nearly all real-life Silverado owners.
There are humorous spots, too, something for which Mahoney was known during his stint at Volkswagen. He was marketing chief in 2011 when VW ran "The Force," a Passat commercial featuring a kid in a Darth Vader costume that has been viewed 59 million times on YouTube and was named most memorable Super Bowl auto ad ever by Edmunds.com.
Chevy last week released a spot intended for the Super Bowl called "Romance," featuring a stud bull getting dropped off by a heavy-duty Silverado in a pasture of cows, set to the 1975 song "You Sexy Thing" by Hot Chocolate. Mahoney says he favors a subtler brand of humor in commercials, not ones that try too hard to capture a share of the post-game buzz.
"We want our commercials to have a wink and a smile," he says, describing the feel he is going for as "smart-funny."
He also is a believer in the power of advertising during "big moments." As of late last week, Chevy was scheduled to broadcast the bull commercial and another 60-second Super Bowl spot, after sitting out last year's game before Mahoney's arrival.
This year's Super Bowl and the Olympics are well timed to spotlight Chevy's revamped product lineup, which includes the new Silverado models, an overhauled Malibu and redesigned Tahoe and Suburban SUVs that go on sale this spring.
"We have great product stories to tell," Mahoney said. The Olympics draw a much wider demographic than most sporting events, he noted, including a higher percentage of female viewers.
General Motors will broadcast some Cadillac commercials, too, as the brand takes aim at BMW, the only other automaker with Olympics advertising rights. Chevy is keeping details of its Olympic commercials under wraps until later this week. Most of the commercials were made by Detroit's Commonwealth, Chevy's advertising agency of record. The Silverado spots are done by Leo Burnett Detroit.
Mahoney insists that emotion and humor don't come at the expense of the vehicles, and that the features -- such as the integration of Siri voice recognition in several vehicles -- will persuade shoppers to have a look.
David Stokols, CEO of automotive marketing consulting firm AMCI of Los Angeles, which has done work for GM, says it makes sense for Chevy to couple an "emotional link" to its products with "true, proven examples of how good the product is versus the competition."
But even if that is the right recipe, it'll take time for Chevrolet's brand image to catch up with the quality of its improved vehicle lineup, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas said in a note to clients last week.
"Few buy a Chevrolet for the brand, but rather for the simple value of the product," Jonas said. "You don't change 40 years of underachievement with five years of overachievement."