Q&A

Despite recall noise, Chevy is 'finding its voice'

Tim Mahoney, global chief marketing officer, Chevrolet: "There's no doubt we wouldn't have wanted this to happen, but it has. So we're trying to move forward and do the right thing. I think it's going to come down to how we address it and respond to it and improve."
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Tim Mahoney, Chevrolet's global chief marketing officer, inherited a fresh "Find New Roads" theme when he took over in spring of 2013. He built on the idea during a Winter Olympics advertising blitz featuring real-life people plucked from social media platforms, along with the tag line "This is the new us."

But the "new" message has gotten more challenging for Chevrolet amid General Motors' recall crisis, which revealed that a defective ignition switch in mid-2000s small cars that has been linked to 13 deaths was left to linger for a decade.

Mahoney, 57, spoke with Staff Reporter Mike Colias on April 16 at the New York auto show.

Q: How has your job changed in the last two months?

A: It's gotten more interesting. But at the end of the day, the work we debuted during the Olympics really resonates. We're continuing down that path. We keep our eye obviously on the conversation going on in social media on a daily basis. But the proof will be how we react and whether we continue to build momentum. We'll transition into the summer months as we bring 4G connectivity combined with OnStar. That's something that puts us ahead of virtually every competitor by at least a year, as much as a year and a half.

You've talked candidly about how Chevy's image hasn't kept pace with the quality of its vehicle lineup. Does the recall fallout make that image-building harder?

I think people realize that, with anything mechanical, there might be challenges. There's no doubt we wouldn't have wanted this to happen, but it has. So we're trying to move forward and do the right thing. I think it's going to come down to how we address it and respond to it and improve. I think there are three things that companies need to be successful: great product; a great experience, and that is about the customer touch points that happen within the dealership and with the company itself; and they need a strong brand that people know what it stands for. We're working at it from all of those angles.

Have you considered an advertising message about the recall?

There's not a plan right now to do that. I think the best story we can tell is about the great products we're bringing to market, and supplementing that with things like talking about awards we've won for customer service and doing right by the consumers.

What about marketing some of the safety wins you've had, like recent accolades for the Spark and Equinox?

We have done that. Even in the Olympics with the "new family" work, which was about the five-star safety rating for Traverse, for example. It's a fine line you have to walk. One of the core values for Chevrolet is authenticity and a sense of optimism. That's how the work is moving forward.

How would you rate the campaign launched around the Olympics? And how do you leverage the social-media conversation around it?

We saw a very favorable lift in people's perception of Chevrolet as a new kind of brand. That was really what we were trying to accomplish through that work, by telling that story through the five core models, along with a couple of others. We monitor the conversations in terms of what people are thinking about the brand. But there is a feeling that the brand is finding its voice. I think you'll continue to see that with the 4G work. That gives us an opportunity to keep reinforcing that this is a new brand.

One of those core models is the Equinox, which you've been advertising in prime time. That's unusual for a vehicle that is nearing the end of its life cycle.

It's interesting. Everybody knows Chevy, whatever that means. They recognize the bow tie. But when you look at the five core models -- Malibu, Cruze, Traverse, Equinox and Silverado -- you have an interesting mix there. Malibu and Silverado are probably two of the most recognizable Chevys. But all the others are new and fresh. It's still a game of building awareness. Traverse is probably the least recognizable of those three. Cruze we've pushed pretty heavily. There's a big success with Chevy in small cars. The Trax is the seventh one we're launching in that space.

Is part of the inclusion of the Equinox an effort to sustain demand in a really competitive segment?

It's a big segment. You've got CR-V and RAV4. I'd say the Equinox has a pretty timeless design. But the one thing that still holds it back is just fundamental awareness. People that drive it really like it. It's a great value. But you say Equinox, and a lot of people say, "I don't know what that is." We're pushing our core model strategy and it definitely fits there.

Why are you bringing the Trax small crossover to the United States?

We think there's an opportunity for affordable all-wheel drive in a utility package. We think it fits really well in an urban environment. It's probably one of the fastest growing global segments. We think we're catching it at a time when there's growth opportunity. Parked next to an Equinox, there's a clear distinction in size.

Switching to trucks: You've had success on sales of higher-end Silverados. Is there more marketing to do on lower-priced models such as double cabs and six-cylinders?

We are gaining significant share in the above-$40,000 price point. But what you have are competitors that are at the end of their life cycle and are a year or two years behind us that are just boring into the incentives. We've remained disciplined and tried to build a reasonable level of profitable demand. Transaction prices are up across the board. You've got some competitors where 18, 19 percent of the transaction price is incentives.

Any next phase of Silverado marketing? I know you like to keep a marketing launch in place for longer than campaigns have run in the past.

It will continue. We want to remain pretty consistent, and as much as I can, bring it even closer to "Find New Roads." Strategically, you're seeing us go back to that "dependable, longest-lasting" message. But also, because of Find New Roads, it's the "most advanced," with all of the technology it has.

You can reach Mike Colias at mcolias@crain.com.


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