I preface this post with the caveat that we’re a huge GM family – both of my cars to date have been GM and almost everyone in my family buys American/GM. So this post is dripping with Love.
GM’s marketing “strategy” makes me want to bang my head into a wall. Strategy is in quotes, because I don’t think there is one.
The problem for American car manufacturers is actually pretty straightforward. GM’s problem is that a very large cross-section of America thinks they make really crappy cars. You say “GM” and they think of “care repairs”. And for good reason: Back in the 1980’s and early 90’s GM stopped focusing on the quality of the cars they made, and more on the marketing. They couldn’t fathom a world where Americans would buy Japanese, etc. That resulted in decades of bad cars on the road, and the resulting bad customer experiences. Meanwhile, Toyota and Honda produced super-reliable cars that also gained attention for their fuel economy and design. So, that’s GM’s problem. (For the purposes of this discussion, we will ignore the massive legacy labor costs and inefficient design systems that GM was burdened with, but their newer rivals were not.)
So that’s the problem: everyone knows that GM makes really crappy cars. Do they? Well, something crazy happened over the last decade. GM actually cleaned up its act and got to work making better cars. They stepped up quality control, etc and fixed many of their most notorious problems. In fact, some GM cars have now surpassed their foreign competitors in overall quality rankings. “Great,” you say– problem solved! But after decades of producing less-than-quality, it apparently leaves a stain on people’s memories. So there’s now an ENTIRE generation of car shoppers who grew up in cars that wouldn’t run properly. Ask almost any 20-something what they think about an American car and you probably won’t hear nice things. It’s actually completely out of the consideration set for my most of my friends. So how does GM get people to think about buying their products again? When all your product awareness is negative, I don’t think it’s by doing anything that they’ve done to date.
Over the past few years, there have been a multitude of random ad campaigns from GM. The post-9/11 “keep America rolling” campaign wasn’t terrible. Unfortunately, it reinforced consumers perception of a lack of quality that wasn’t worth paying for since the campaign was all about deep discounts. Then there’s the awful Pontiac campaign going on right now that has something to do with fireworks and college basketball. Cadillac, might be the lone brightspot. One of my favorite commercials of all time is a 60 second Cadillac spot that follows their various cars through memorable moments in American history. The image of Ali in a Cadillac riding in a parade, etc. It speaks to the concept of hard work, the striving for success, and the payoff. Cadillac is success. But anyway, my point is with the exception of Cadillac — GM’s marketing has been unbelievable forgettable.
A quick word on pricing. GM needed to keep their factories running due to union contracts, and so they cut and cut pricing. The downside to this is that once you train consumers to buy your products on sale, it’s tough to get them back to full-price. It’s a long-term overhang now.
GM should chose a strategy of ‘mea culpa’. Start with the “We get it. We didn’t make the best cars for years and you looked elsewhere.” You’re guaranteed to catch people off guard. For the first time in a long time, you’re no longer that annoying, irrelevant TV commercial with fireworks and other crap for a car that you would never consider purchasing. So you pause, and it gets your attention.
The next phase would then lay out all of the changes that GM has made in improving quality, reliability, and style. Use all the awards and recognition from the external world as proof — the reasons for people to believe GM. Run an entire campaign that ticks off all of the third-parties who have said “this isn’t the GM of 20 years ago.” Now GM’s got you primed, and you’re thinking — hmm, maybe there is something to that. No one’s running to the dealer to do a test-drive– but they’re maybe not dismissing GM out of hand now.
Now is where GM should bring in their crazy strategy. “We’re so confident that we’ve built a better GM. A better car than any other out there, we want to prove it to you. We’re going to give our most precious asset: we’ll sell you a car for the same price we sell to our employees. The employe discount is the lowest price we’ve ever sold these cars for. We believe that once we get you in a GM, you’ll never go back.” Tie the insane pricing tactics into an overall strategic push back to improved product quality.
All this frustrates me to no end because I actually like GM’s brands. Someday I hope to drive a Cadillac (maybe when the Saturn dies), and I still have a lot of love for the Pontiac and Saturn brands. And more than anything else, I have a lot of love for the thousands of GM autoworkers and GM itself. What gets lost in all the mess, is that GM (and its peers) have afforded thousands of its employees a much better life, and allowed them to send their kids to college and a life even better than the ones they lived. It’s upward mobility at its best. They offer pensions, etc that are now a noose around its neck thanks to declining sales– but speak to a social compact between employer and employee. All of this makes me love GM and want GM to do well. Yet, I’m disappointed every time I turn on a TV, log onto the Internet, or hear a radio ad.
Come on GM. Change some minds!
2/25/13 – Well, for about a year, I did drive a Cadillac. It was fun to drive. I still like GM and it’s crazy to think of how much they’ve been through in the 6 years since I wrote this post. Bankruptcy, etc. Their cars + advertising have improved. But I still think their advertising is mediocre at best. I guess some things never change.