General Motors has awakened to the importance of used cars by creating a new brand around them, and the company is making trust a central theme of its ad campaign to win over the hearts and minds of customers.
Earlier this month, the world's largest automaker unveiled the marketing plans for its GM Certified Used Vehicle program at two dealerships in St. Louis.
The campaign - carrying the theme 'Ready for Life' - features eye-catching magazine ads that assemble objects from everyday life into collages shaped like cars, vans and sport-utilities.
The offbeat (for GM) TV ads also carry everyday life images. Trade magazine and newspaper ads carry themes like: 'We now introduce you to a vehicle that runs on trust,' and 'Outside the handshake, everything about selling used cars and trucks is about to change.'
The clever ads rank a cut above the bland GM advertising we're accustomed to seeing. The ads were created by Mullen, a Wenham, Mass., ad agency selected especially for the new account. GM seems to have learned a thing or two from its experience with Saturn. For the Saturn account, GM went outside its usual roster and chose Hal Riney & Partners, a San Francisco agency with a reputation for its folksy creative style. The success of that combination is well documented.
But it will take more than a well-executed ad campaign and platitudes about trust for the GM Certified Used Vehicle program to succeed. To make this ambitious effort work, GM must regain the trust of two critical contingencies: its dealers and its customers.
GM dealers are wary about the automaker's efforts to implement its Project 2000 plan, which attempts to pair GM brands in consistent dualing patterns, move dealerships to high-traffic areas and trim the dealer roster. And they are not sure whether they can trust marketing czar Ron Zarrella, still seen as an automotive neophyte in some dealer circles.
So far only about 500 of GM's more than 8,000 eligible dealers have signed up for the program, after many months of internal marketing. That is not nearly enough. Skeptical dealers need to see the benefits of the program where it counts most: on the bottom line.
The market-based pricing system employed in the certified used-car program runs counter to the mentality of old-fashioned hagglers in the GM dealer body. As anyone engaged in the similar practice of one-price selling can tell you, such a pricing method has to become a virtual religion within a dealership if it is going to work.
GM also is borrowing from its Saturn experience in training salespeople to sell certified used vehicles. Such training is good, but having two different pricing philosophies at the same dealership could be asking for trouble.
GM is positioning its Certified Used Vehicles as an entry-level brand. In theory, customers happy with their ownership experiences would then move up the ladder to new GM vehicles.
Such a philosophy has worked well at Lexus. But GM vehicles lack Lexus' bulletproof quality reputation.
Lexus and Saturn have made certification programs work, but they had the benefit of being able to start with a clean sheet of paper. The Buick, Chevrolet, GMC, Oldsmobile and Pontiac brands are old brands with long histories and come with a certain amount of baggage.
After a balky start, GM has gotten its Certified Used Vehicle program out of the blocks. Now the company will have to prove the program is worthy of the trust it wants and so badly needs.
Bradiford Wernle welcomes comments. He can be reached at (313) 446-0373 or via e-mail at [email protected]