NEW YORK -- With General Motors following Chrysler today onto the rust heap of tarnished brands, there are plenty of shoulda-coulda-wouldas to be found.
The job of marketing isn't to dwell on past failures but rather to help a company find its way forward. So instead of Monday-morning quarterbacking, Advertising Age, an affiliate of Automotive News, reached out to folks in the ad industry and asked them if they'd take on the automaker as a client and how they'd pitch the company.
Participating in the experiment were John Coleman, CEO, The Via Group, Portland, Maine; Dana Farbo, CEO, Cowboy; Andrew Benett, co-CEO, Euro RSCG NY and global chief strategy officer, Euro RSCG Worldwide; Phil Johnson, CEO, PJA Advertising and Marketing; Tom Martin, president, Zehnder Communications; Bart Cleveland, creative director, McKee Wallwork Cleveland; Steve Cone, CMO, Epsilon, a database marketing agency; Matt Wolfrom, U.S. corporate practice leader, WPP's Cohn & Wolfe; Tom Sullivan, president, Vitro Robertson; Bill Fleishman, managing director and exec VP-brand marketing, Cone; and Courtney Buechert, president, Eleven Inc.
Would you consider taking on GM given its condition and the possibility of government control?
While all respondents said they'd jump at the chance, some attached conditions.
Cone: I would with the sole condition that I be prepaid for estimated time over the next six months and an account setup for making out-of-pocket payments.
Sullivan: Yes. Reviving an iconic American brand would be a true honor, and I'd love that challenge.
Coleman: A near-bankrupt client, a low chance of success, crushing global scrutiny with hands-on government oversight every step of the way? Of course we'd do it. That much fun should be illegal.
Johnson: If GM's marketing problems aren't complex, I don't know what is. We would certainly agree to help them. Of course, all work would be done C.O.D.
What sort of strategy would you pitch?
Coleman: Introduce a promotion that would transform General Motors into America's first truly owner-owned company: The government issues anyone who purchases a new GM vehicle in the next 12 months 1,000 shares in General Motors stock. Then GM shareholders become people who are motivated to make both better products and a better company.
Farbo: GM faces a credibility issue over the next few years no matter what happens with their financial situation. As such, there has to be an overall branding strategy implemented that speaks to who they are planning to become. For example, if their intent is to be a leaner company and yet hold quality at a high level while giving a fair price to the customer, the challenge will be to show innovation in driving down cost while improving quality. Pricing campaigns are short term programs geared toward immediate sales, but they cannot be the foundation of how we view the product. In the end, cheap means cheap.
Benett: Cars in the U.S. are still built and sold the way tractors and sewing machines were sold in the 1930s -- in the old Detroit parlance, "stack 'em deep and sell 'em cheap."
Make a new promise to the American people: "We are reinventing ourselves. Every car we build will be made to order -- the color and features you want." The entire infrastructure could be rebuilt to radically reduce the number of dealerships. GM could switch to selling cars out of malls and Main Street storefronts, with deep ties to the internet. Products could be configured online and, after a showroom consultation, built to that spec. Using lean, [just-in-time] manufacturing practices, only cars that have been sold would be built.
Johnson: They can regain their iconic stature if they are willing to stand alone without excuses and rationalization. No riding the coattails of patriotism or trying to convince the public that we're all in this together. Step one is to show the courage to acknowledge failure. Step two will be to take on some form of Herculean task that will serve the public good. This could be the most massive job program ever instituted by the private sector, or redefining the safety of the automobile. To be credible, it will have to surpass all of our expectations for ambition and audacity. The brand strategy will be to make the public believe in the transformative power of American industry.
Cone: I would ask the government to buy 300,000 to 500,000 GM cars and trucks over the next 12 months in lieu of an outright loan. These vehicles would be given free to the first 500,000 college graduates who have loans to repay beginning right now. The net effect of this program would be huge press coverage, outrage from competitors (who cares?), a great help for recent grads facing a daunting job market, an incentive for others to graduate and jobs for thousands of auto workers.
From an overall pricing standpoint I would go all out with several efforts at the same time -- one effort is buy your next GM car or truck within the next 3 months for what you last paid within the last ten years. Show brand loyalty counts for something.
Wolfrom: GM will win by focusing on its heritage, strategic assets and vision for future energy consumption/efficiency. They need to recapture the old GM magic so an overall branding campaign is easiest and most efficient given the state of their business. Finally, the way out of bankruptcy is not through pricing discounts.
Martin: The good news is that you can fix this. You can rebound and even come back stronger. The bad news: You can't advertise your way out of this and it won't be a quick process. This isn't about taglines and concepts. It's about a lost connection with your consumer. What's happening to you requires a fundamental change in your business model. You have to change everything. Be willing to be fired. Tell your unions to pull their collective heads out of their asses and join with you to save their jobs. Then be fair with them. Then, and only then, do you bother with taglines and concepts. Once you've done that, commit like failure isn't an option, because it isn't, and don't waver the first time investors bitch.
Cleveland: The product brand takes precedent over the corporate brand. The heritage of Chevy, Cadillac and Buick are the best weapons GM has to become relevant again. I would pitch a strategy of brutal honesty. It would tell consumers, "We have a new attitude. We have to earn your trust and your loyalty again. We are committing to doing just that."
Do you tell GM to shed brands?
Coleman: Cadillac and Chevy survive. All the others go away.
Benett: You keep four brands with strong identities, sales and brand equity: Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Buick. Chevrolet becomes the living laboratory for mass customization, with Cadillac as the luxury marque under the same program. GMC becomes a B-to-B brand. Buick becomes an American "ambassador brand," largely sold overseas.
Fleishman: At this point, GM is rumored to drop or spin off Pontiac, Saab, Hummer and Saturn. I think this is a smart step, but it may not go far enough. I would counsel them to also drop their Buick line, which now bridges Chevy and Cadillac, and save it exclusively for oversees where sales are strong -- especially in China.
Buechert: GM has already shed Oldsmobile, and I would lose Buick, Pontiac, Hummer and Saab as well. Chevy, GMC and Cadillac would all see huge changes -- simplification of products, reduction of duplication. Saturn would go 100% alternative energy immediately, and I would bring Opel back to the U.S.
What's the corporate tagline for GM?
Coleman: "Obama is my co-pilot."
Farbo: Summer of 2009 and fall of 2009: "Driving a new day." Next year: "Innovation driving a new World."
Cleveland: For now, a tagline is irrelevant. The top advertisers in the world spend billions a year on advertising, yet research shows people can't remember any of their taglines. Taglines do not create effective brand stories. Brand stories create effective taglines.
Sullivan: Coming up with a tagline off the top of my head is a dangerous exercise. Jokes comes rushing to the front of my mind: "GM. Your tax dollars at work." Perhaps GM should bring back "like a rock." We could add a new verse: "We bend, but we don't break." Heavy-duty-caveat alert: This is off the top of my head, and a true tagline for any brand needs some serious thought. I'd say something along the lines of "GM. The New Road" or "GM. American. Reinvented."
Buechert: Maybe "You bought the company, why not own the car?" OK, seriously: "GM. American-crafted." or "Our GM."
How would you advise the company in terms of product development?
Sullivan: GM isn't producing anything for people to get excited about. What happens to the great concept cars we see at the auto shows? We end up with square boxes with wheels.
In the short term, General Motors could really use help from American brands that are getting it right. Partner with a strong, vibrant American brand like an Apple or an Intel to bring a quick jolt of innovation and interest.
Wouldn't it be interesting to see an Apple-designed new Chevy? How great would that be?
Coleman: Launch a program to build the world's first 100-mile-per-gallon, commercial-production vehicle in a completely transparent, "Sea Biscuit meets the Manhattan Project" initiative for all the world to see. Everyone loves an underdog. This program would turn a standard but much-needed product-development process into a chance for people to start rooting for GM to succeed again.
Benett: There are some huge opportunities in the U.S. market right now from a product perspective. Over two-thirds of U.S. households that own a Prius also own an SUV. The U.S. domestic-car market still operates under the schema of: There are big, nice cars and small, cheap cars, but there are no small, nice cars. For the last 30 years, the small cars sold by the Big Three have been spare and soulless.
Imagine someone with the market reach of GM selling commuter cars on the Mini Cooper model: small, jewel-like build, richly featured and fun to drive. GM could reinvent diesel in the U.S.; it could absolutely own it. There isn't a domestic brand with first-mover advantage on that technology as of yet. Why not bring over Vauxhall city cars from the U.K. and adapt them for use as high-comfort, high-safety, high-fuel-economy, commuting road warriors? If GM were able to offer European safety and fuel economy in an American package, it would have something pretty unique to market.
On the flip side, the SUVs it sells should return to the utility side of the equation. Instead of being big, plush cars, they could become economic and practical people-and-grocery movers.
Buechert: The new GM product line would include three volume businesses: Cadillac -- American luxury for the young and old; Chevy -- classic American cars and trucks; and Opel -- the American "mini" (sporty, affordable, efficient and fun).
And it would include two specialty brands: GMC -- American toughness from GM, a credible nationwide as a line of working trucks; and Saturn -- American innovation from GM. Saturn would encompass all hybrids, hydrogen, crazy three-door cars and stuff like that. I'd move the Volt here. This brand should be for visionaries and iconoclasts.