DETROIT -- General Motors wants to be the next Apple.
Yes, you read that right. General Motors Co. Global Chief Marketing Officer Joel Ewanick, never one to think small, has declared his intention to transform the clunky Detroit automaker into a company on par with the brand that Jobs built: innovative, sleek, cutting edge and high design.
"We have an aspirational goal and this is a big target for us," Ewanick said this week at GM's second annual Global Business Conference, a half-day of speeches from the Detroit automaker's key executives, aimed at an audience of investors and analysts.
Ewanick, almost in the same breath, praised and then dissed his competitors when speaking about his goal to become more Apple-like.
"We understand our direct competitors are Toyota, Volkswagen, Hyundai -- a very, a very strong competitor, one that I know well and is going to be very formidable -- and Ford, obviously," said Ewanick, who was the former CMO at Hyundai before accepting the GM job in the spring of 2010.
"But it's time to clearly differentiate our brand and align closer to a true global brand like an Apple. It's time for an automotive company to step out and address consumers and their needs in a way that's never been done before."
Just how GM plans to turn itself into Apple remains somewhat vague at this point, and there is some skepticism among automotive experts.
"I think it's a noble goal but the short answer is no, it's not doable in the climate we exist in," said industry marketing expert Peter DeLorenzo, who runs the influential website autoextremist.com. "Automobiles just don't have the broad appeal that the latest tech products do."
As Ewanick spoke at the conference, a slide on the screen appeared with the iconic Chevrolet symbol displayed next to the Apple company logo.
"We have what we consider to be a somewhat different way of looking at this," he said. "While our competitors are going after global leadership and global domination, they're all talking about sales in one way or another and market share. [GM CEO Dan Akerson] doesn't want us to chase market share, he wants us to chase profitability.
"To do so we want to build the strongest consumer brand, not necessarily the strongest auto brand. ...We have to find ways to differentiate ourselves so we're not competing on the commodities (such as safety or fuel economy), but find other ways to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace."
"Brands have to be clear, powerful and distinct in the marketplace," Akerson said. "As hard as it was to go through bankruptcy, and perverse as this may sound, we had eight brands in the marketplace and we went to four. We cleared a lot of confusion and gave broader swim lanes to our (current) brands so we could make a distinction between brands and build equity and attributes."
Automotive marketing and social-media expert Kathi Kruse called GM's goal "interesting," and was more optimistic than DeLorenzo. Kruse said that the heart of Apple's success is great product, great delivery and great design. If GM wants to emulate that, it needs to start with the product.
"They need to design some amazing cars that are visually stimulating," said Kruse, who has more than three decades of experience in the car business and now runs her own Anaheim, Calif.-based consultancy, Kruse Control. "If GM can capture how good people feel when they purchase an Apple product, they can succeed.
"But I haven't seen that yet. The GM brand has always been pretty strong. It's come and gone over the years, but it's still strong. To me, it all boils down to design and what the customer is attracted to. ... It's not about horsepower anymore, it's about technology, both the workings of the vehicle and the technological advances. If they can focus on that, it would be huge."
GM said it will make a stronger commitment to turning Chevrolet and Cadillac into global brands -- Akerson called it the pursuit of "dual global brand strategies" -- and Ewanick likened the situation to the debut of the Lexus brand.
"It's analogous to what Lexus did to the world in 1989... pushed the luxury market in a different direction, and everybody had to follow. It was a brilliant move," Ewanick said. "This is a little bit of the same way. It will change the fabric of our culture. Chevrolet and Cadillac will set the tone for GM's portfolio -- how we address the market, how we bring technology to the market."
He added: "We have a plan and we're working that plan."