Saving the General

When people ask me directly what kind of car, truck, or SUV they should consider, all too often they dismiss any recommendation that includes a domestic brand. Whether that bias is based on past experience, hearsay, or the perceived snob appeal of driving an "import," it doesn't matter. If you build a better mousetrap, you've got to get the mice engaged.

GM and its Detroit rivals are hardly ignorant about marketing that works overtime. Throughout its formative history, General Motors was so successful at wooing the American public to adore its cars that by the early 1960s Congress threatened to curb what was becoming an automotive monopoly.

That wasn't GM's only marketing success. In the 1990s, Saturn was launched and managed to build a franchise from scratch that was the envy of the industry. The new company developed a cult following in the style of Harley-Davidson with products that were hardly superior to its Japanese rivals. But the marketing was brilliant, led by Hal Riney and Partners, a San Francisco ad agency that helped develop a new sales environment and sold the concept with effective advertising. But when the "old" GM took its eye off Saturn, then folded it into the mothership and finally ended that creative advertising nonsense, the brand died of unnatural causes.

Now that doesn't mean that Detroit ad agencies can't get the job done. Campbell-Ewald, the Motown-based organization that bills itself as producing "industrial-strength creativity," has been Chevrolet's agency of record for as long as most of us can remember. But in 1991 the venerable firm nearly lost that business. Just as the grim reaper was at CE's doorstep, creative chief Donald Gould heard Bob Seger's "Like a Rock" ballad and talked the country star into letting Gould's agency use it for a Chevy truck commercial. They still have the Chevy business.

There are lots of examples of brilliant new products that help turn around companies. But in today's hyper-competitive automotive landscape, the next amazing new thing is right around the corner. Not many years ago, people laughed when Hyundai sat down to play. This year, Hyundai's Genesis sedan won the North American Car of the Year award.

But there are far fewer brilliant, risk-taking marketing executions that win new customers. MINI Cooper is clearly one example where every part of the communication strategy, from TV ads to the owner's manual, exudes the fun of the brand. Meanwhile, people visit Apple's website just to see their newest commercials. How often do you suppose surfers direct their browsers to locate the average car company ad?

So here's what GM needs to do right now. Get in a crisis mode. Clearly your employees must be worried about their future. Put the best marketing minds you can find to the task of reinventing that crucial part of your business and don't second-guess the result, even if you make a misstep or two. And make every incumbent ad agency compete with new creative hot shots for the business.