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GM’s Marketing Challenge

Can the automaker repair its image with smart advertising?

by
Brian Douglas

Bio

August 30, 2009 - 12:18 am
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I won’t speculate on what action Lutz will take, but I’m happy to throw in a few cents of advice as a person who has worked on both the ad agency and client side of the marketing landscape. I’ll even include some examples of breakthrough advertising that helped establish automotive brands and model nameplates, including some of the better efforts from GM.

Detroit automakers tend to stick with their agencies for decades, just as they might relate to an old, trusted supplier of air conditioning components or starter motors. And it’s possible for an ad agency to get comfortable and take fewer risks. Sometimes, stirring things up can make all the difference.

That happened in the 1990s at Chevrolet when the GM unit became impatient with its truck advertising and sales progress vs. archrival Ford. When Campbell Ewald, Chevy’s long time agency, thought it might lose the account, its creative chief persuaded Bob Seger to allow his hit “Like a Rock” to underpin a new commercial. The strategy was a major success.

Over at Cadillac, agency Leo Burnett created “Break Through,” a campaign with Burnett’s trademark “slice-of-life” storytelling with Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” providing the pounding score. The goal was to lure boomers out of their European luxury cars. It got some traction until the goal changed and Leo and the boomers were dumped for a younger, hipper demographic. Modernista, the new shop, created “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit” as a theme and employs contemporary music, but the commercials seem familiar to those that Leo Burnett had produced.

Sometimes, it takes a brand new ad agency to create not just a few commercials but a new marketing strategy. You don’t have to look further than Saturn when it began life by hiring San Francisco’s Hal Riney and Partners. This most unlikely choice, a relatively small shop across the country from Motown, proved to be brilliant. Riney’s marketing strategy created a new buyer experience and advertising that connected so well, it was superior to the product.

More recently, MINI used this strategy when the New York-based company traveled to Sausalito to pick Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners (BSSP) to handle its marketing. The small shop is so creative and thorough that even the owner’s manuals are fun to read and the commercials as entertaining as Apple’s iconic campaign.

So there you go, Bob. All you need is what every automaker spends millions to achieve but few discover: that great creative inspiration that moves metal as well as emotions. And if your current agencies can’t deliver, I’m sure you’ll know where to go to find great work.

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Brian Douglas has driven everything with wheels during his career in the automotive technical, marketing, and journalism professions. He is currently a contributing expert for KGO Radio, WHEELS editor for the San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Baltimore Examiner newspapers, automotive features writer for the Minneapolis/St. Paul Times Tribune, and automotive editor for Gentry and Ranch & Coast magazines.
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