New GM Marketing Boss: 'GM Is Not A Brand'By Dale Buss August 30, 2010
Don't expect to see the new CEO of General Motors, Daniel Akerson, appear in a corporate television ad the way his predecessor, Ed Whitacre, did several months ago. At least not if Joel Ewanick has anything to say about it.
Recently hired as GM's chief marketing officer, Ewanick is chomping at everything like an over-caffeinated Pac-Man as he bounces around corporate headquarters, the labyrinthine Renaissance Center in Detroit. He's removing a brand chieftain and replacing him with an old colleague. He's devouring bad advertising slogans. He's terminating fledgling agency relationships.
And while he won't say so, it's not hard to imagine Ewanick informing his new boss there won't be any more CEO appearances in TV ads, even if someone thinks it's a good idea to promote GM's upcoming IPO to would-be investors across the country.
"General Motors is not a brand," said the 50-year-old Ewanick, on the job here now for three eventful months, in an interview with AutoObserver.
"Is (Procter & Gamble) a brand?" he asks and, without waiting for an answer that might be contrary, adds: "No, it's not a brand. I'm pushing this hard because I don't want to go back to the idea of selling GM."
Indeed, from sun-up to sun-down these days, Ewanick's focus is singular: building up the Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC brands to the exclusion of everything else. In that effort, among other things he plans to boost GM's ad spending by a single-digit percentage this year after it laid out $2.2 billion last year, according to outside estimates - and to rejoin the Super Bowl telecast in February after a two-year absence from the game.
Ewanick is talking at 7 a.m. between peripatetic sips of what already is his second Starbucks of the day. He says he downs them continually; sure enough, the baristas here know his face and his brew - a grande latte - by heart.
The lightly graying redhead has been doing this since he ceremoniously arrived in May from Nissan after a plaintive phone call from General Motors' North American chief, Mark Reuss. GM had been through three insider CMOs in about a year - so promised carte blanche to straighten out GM's long-muddied approach to branding and marketing, Ewanick leapt at the chance to swoop in, even though he'd only left the CMO job at Hyundai - where he was named Advertising Age Marketer of the Year for 2009 - and gone to Nissan a few weeks before.
But Ewanick (pronounced "ee-WAHN-ick") sees opportunity for GM brands as well as for himself. Without irony, much of what he is doing is trying to return the company to the architecture of distinct brand identities established by Alfred Sloan, GM's chief at mid-century, who coined the idea of a vehicle "fit for every purse and purpose" and built the company around ways to get American consumers to step up from a Chevrolet to a Pontiac to an Oldsmobile or Buick and ultimately to a Cadillac.
Ewanick has fewer brands to work with these days because GM has jettisoned Oldsmobile and Pontiac (as well as later brand additions Saturn, Hummer and Saab) but insists that Sloan's quintessential philosophy still applies. Another way to think of this approach is establishing what Ewanick has called "swim lanes" for each brand.
"Go back to the Sloan model everyone has copied," Ewanick says. "Someone has relationships with a brand. They don't buy a 'GM.' They get a strong, passionate understanding of what Chevy stands for. It's surprising how much Americans support Chevrolet and want to see it successful. But it has a soul. And we need to build upon that."
And to Ewanick as well as to many who analyze GM from the outside, the task must begin with Chevrolet.
It's by far the biggest remaining GM brand, responsible for about 70 percent of sales this year, but it's also the most needy in some ways: It's worthy of far better treatment by the company's marketing brain trust than it's gotten lately even though GM also spends a sales-proportionate percentage of its advertising budget on Chevrolet.
Instability has been one big problem. Chevy has had three marketing chiefs in the last 13 months, culminating in Ewanick's recent decision to bring in Chris Perry - his former lieutenant and eventual successor at Hyundai - to take over Chevrolet. Nudged into another post was previous Chevy marketing boss Jim Campbell.
Although the company says Campbell's reassignment was unrelated, he was wrong - in addition to picayunish - by insisting in a recent internal memo that no one at GM should use the term "Chevy" when referring to the brand.
Ewanick - as does almost everyone else inside and outside the company - sees value in the familiar "Chevy" handle. "People don't have nicknames for other auto brands," Ewanick told MediaPost.
Ewanick also quickly churned the agency waters by plucking the Chevrolet account from Publicis after just one month and awarding it to Goodby Silverstein, which had done work for him at Hyundai and Porsche - and had helped build Saturn to prominence many years ago.
Fortunately, Chevy dealers lately have been stocked with robust new products that haven't required a lot of brand coddling. Camaro and Equinox remain hot, and the new version of Malibu is still doing relatively well three years on. "It all starts with great product," Ewanick said. "That gives us a platform to hammer home the brands."
Chevrolet marketing over the next several weeks will continue to be product-oriented as the division starts a new campaign for Camaro; handles the crucial launch of the Cruze compact, its highest-priced and potentially most lucrative small car ever; and paves the way for the revolutionary Volt extended-range electric vehicle. (Ewanick discusses Volt marketing with AutoObserver sibling site, Green Car Advisor.)
"We made a conscious decision not to get too fancy about the brand as we launch these vehicles," he says. "We don't want to get in the way of ourselves."
But by this fall, the outlines of Ewanick's broader plans for Chevrolet will emerge. And they'll be made crystal clear, he says, during the Super Bowl ads.
Ewanick already has jettisoned Chevy's limp "Excellence for all" tagline but remains vague about how he will re-tailor Chevrolet's brand identity. Clearly, he wants to tap into what he believes is a vast reservoir of American affection for the brand and isn't shy about referring to Chevy's old "Heartbeat of America" identity.
So although Ewanick has said he doesn't intend to wrap Chevy in the American flag, he probably will attempt to tap into consumers' emotional bonds to the brand.
"If you ask someone to build a 'collage' of the Chevy brand as researchers often do, you'll see them include rational things like performance and quality, but they'll always layer on the feelings that Chevy brings out," Ewanick says. "That's the strength of Chevy, and you'll see us take advantage of this."
Buick: Ewanick seems jazzed by the fact Buick sales have taken off so strongly over the last couple of years, even without a commensurate improvement in its brand identity. The successive launches of the Enclave CUV, then the LaCrosse sedan and, this summer, the new Buick Regal, have excited American consumers about driving and being seen in Buicks again, Ewanick said.. One of the surest signs, he added, is that GM hasn't had to incentivize sales of any of these products.
Ewanick belives Buick has the biggest upside of any of GM's four brands. He has said that the brand has remained almost dormant for years after emerging a long struggle for survival with Oldsmobile, which Buick ultimately won. And then for several years its strongest association was with Tiger Woods, with whom Buick broke ties long before his wife did.
Now, Ewanick says, "We want to position Buick as the brand that allows you to come as you are" or as "understated luxury" that is "surprisingly affordable." Buick's TV and radio ads that draw comparisons with Lexus already have been making this point.
Cadillac: Ewanick pulled a quick agency shuffle for Cadillac too, dispatching Bartle Bogle Hegarty after it had the account for just six months in favor of Fallon Worldwide in Minneapolis. He also ditched the brand's existing tagline, "The Mark of leadership," and has re-introduced "The standard of the world," an old Cadillac slogan - though he hasn't been clear about whether he plans to keep it.
"We haven't done a good job of telling the Cadillac story over the last decade," Ewanick says of GM. Yet the brand's distinctively chiseled design language, a solid response to the new SRX crossover and the still-estimable positioning of the segment-defining Escalade have kept Cadillac in the game through the recession's mostly rough treatment of luxury marques.
Again, as with Chevrolet and Buick, Ewanick is enthused about what Cadillac can achieve given marketing that is worthy of its products. The CMO is intent on bringing to the brand the notion of what Fallon has called "red-blooded luxury," which among other things distinguishes Cadillac from foreign-built competitors such as Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. Expect him also to tout Cadillac as an innovator, harking back to its history as a trailblazer in luxury amenities such as power windows.
GMC: The truck brand of General Motors has been rolling with the tag line "Professional Grade" for several years. One could argue Professional Grade is becoming less relevant to more GMC shoppers as the brand's lineup of consumer-oriented "trucks" expands, but Ewanick stands by the positioning.
"A big part of the truck market gravitates to GMC as premium models," he says. "And 'Professional Grade' resonates beyond professional buyers."
One reason Ewanick can concentrate so clearly on brand building is that the much slimmer GM now has a strong handle on its production and inventory situation, letting neither get out of hand. As a result, GM's average incentives per sale have been dwindling while its transaction prices have been going up. Those are exactly the trends Ewanick requires to assist in his brand-enhancement efforts.
And meanwhile, Ewanick doesn't much need to worry about "moving the metal" with short-term promotions as long as the fledgling mild recovery in U.S. auto sales continues. "It hurts not to be able to give 'deals' because we don't have the inventory we used to have," Ewanick said. "But this is the way it's supposed to be."
Neither does Ewanick have to bother with what became a preoccupation among some automotive marketers over the last decade or so: doing an end run around the dealer body by using the internet. GM's focus, he says, is to help dealers become better marketers and retailers online.
"The vehicle is a complex machine that requires some explanation," Ewanick says. "You don't just plug-and-play."
GM hopes to work with dealers in social media, among other online venues. Ewanick vowed the company will "be a leader" in what he prefers to call "social engagement." Already, for instance, in June GM launched a web site called MomentofTruth.com that invites comments about the 2011 Regal. The company also held Regal parties in several cities, issued Flip cameras to some guests, and invited them to post their videos of the get-togethers on the site.
'The Parent Company'
But don't expect to see Akerson show up in GM social media or anywhere else. It's true that Whitacre fouled the nest for personal marketing by GM CEOs when, last spring, he appeared, Iacocca-esque, in a TV ad extolling the "new GM" - and quickly was criticized for fudging the truth about what GM already had accomplished in repaying its debt to the U.S. taxpayer.
Yet even for GM's upcoming IPO - which promises to be one of the biggest in history and clearly will be one of the most consequential - Ewanick doesn't want to lend any marketing support to "the corporate brand." The reasoning is the same behind the company's recent Ewanick-driven decision to remove those tiny GM emblems that shoppers used to be able to find on every GM-built vehicle.
Ewanick even has been insisting lately on saying "the parent company" instead of "General Motors" or "GM." He simply doesn't want to give any quarter, any more, anywhere, to the notion of a corporate brand, because he believes it's meaningless in helping sell vehicles and only gets in the way of the vehicle brands that must become clearer to American consumers.
"It's really a discipline," he explained. "We have to start talking differently, or I could see us going backwards on this. Am I being a little pedantic about it? Yes - on purpose.
"Maybe an investor looks at GM as a brand," Ewanick conceded. "But the way to do that is to do a really great job of interesting consumers in each of our brands. If we do nothing but that, we will succeed. And that's what investors want me to do."
More important in the long term, he said, is what American consumers expect GM to do. "My aspirations are to see us, over time, talk about how great these brands are, and with that we will see market-share gains," Ewanick says. "If we deliver products that resonate in every single segment, and then hit on all cylinders with brand personality, we will see growth across every brand and in every line."
Photos by GM