Can America Get Its Money Back, Please?

Last week, GM launched a campaign called "May the Best Car Win." It was, apparently, designed to address a lingering image of GM as a financially struggling company with substandard products. The campaign offers customers a refund within 60 days on any GM vehicle if not completely satisfied. Edward Whitacre, the company's new chairman recruited by the U.S. government and a former AT&T chief, is the face of the new campaign. Shades of Dieter Zetsche!

This begs the question, of course, if the belief that GM has sub-standard products is really GM's problem.

This has escalated from a marketing question batted around a conference room table to real news, seeing as American taxpayers coughed up $50 billion dollars to bail out GM.

Clearly, the guarantee element was included as an "insurance policy" of sorts, a creative way of expressing a "quality" proof-point in the ads. After all, would GM make the offer if it actually thought the cars were of poor quality?

But the truth is that real brand loyalty research has shown it's been a good long while since consumers thought about GM in that way. The GM cars are, generally speaking, thought of as being as good as any comparably priced competitors. Really. So why raise the issue?



Part of the answer likely has to do with the way GM has been evaluating the brand and its cars. Nothing so crude as "So, do you think GM still makes inferior cars?" where a "yes" or "no" reinforces a second-rate image anyway someone answers -- but you can bet some question or scale akin to that is being used.

No, the core of the problem resides in the fact that GM stands for "generic car company." In the past we've called them the "Acme Car Company of the 21st Century." GM was never very good at branding, and still fails to present its cars in any context that is meaningful to consumers. When you're just a "car," you never end up being rated better than a brand that is seen to be somewhat more than just a car.

But this is not a recent condition. A number of years ago The New York Times? covered a new Buick campaign in its Advertising column. It had some sort of tag like "Technology" or "Creative Motoring" or "To Infinity and Beyond." When asked about why a positioning (such as it was) was selected, the agency VP said something like, "Well, we had to give buyers something to tell their neighbors as to why they bought the car!" We don't know about you, but none of us can ever remember using a tagline in any conversation that was not either work related or a hotly contested game of trivial pursuit.

Back in 2005, after reporting a $1.1 billion loss (it was only stockholders money), the remedy that GM management suggested was to put the GM Mark of Excellence logo on all models in an effort to link the corporation to its divisions. This was deemed a good idea presumably because, as the company pointed out with its usual mid-20th century bravado, "Everyone was familiar with the GM brand!"

It was, to say the least, an interesting marketing proposition: Link automobiles that stand for little in the consumer's minds with a manufacturer that stands even less. Consumers knew, of course, GM made cars and trucks, but on the rare occasions they thought about GM, they didn't think much about it at all (including anything having to do with substandard vehicles), and therein lies the real problem. GM brands never stood for anything in the minds of car buyers, and they still don't.

It can't have gone unnoticed -- even in insular Detroit -- that about a decade ago the consumer decision-process became far more emotionally based than rationally based. A lot of that has to do with the fact that with process-reengineering, Total Quality, advancements in robotics and the fact that consumers didn't really didn't like the door handles falling of their cars as they drove them off the lots. Car manufacturers -- all car manufacturers including GM -- pretty much got the nuts 'n' bolts fabrication formula down pretty well.

Cars -- price points notwithstanding -- were now pretty much the same. But the cars that did better in the marketplace were the ones that did better in the minds of the consumers. They "meant" something. They stood for something important to consumers. They thought, and they bought. At the very least they ended up in the consideration set. Of the four remaining GM brands, three stand for nothing.

Doubt me? Okay, here's a little brand word-association test to determine whether any product or service is a brand. Ask the consumer to tell you the first thing that comes to mind when you name a particular product. In the car category it would go something like this (answers come from our most recent Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Engagement Index):

You: Mercedes
Customer: Luxury
You: Toyota
Customer: Hybrids
You: General Motors
Customer: Cars
(Category Placeholder)
You: GMC
Customer: Trucks
(OK, a little bit more explicit)
You: Buick
Customer: Uhhh

That "uhhh" is the sound of a brand dying. If you have no values or meaning to leverage all you can do is resort to tactics like offering a money-back guarantee.

In its last campaign, we heard a lot about "reinvention" from GM. But what it really ought to remember is that if it wants to do something new, it has to stop doing things the way it did 50 years ago and start some sort of meaningful branding.

Because when it comes to successful auto sales, meaning is what sets us apart from other life forms -- or at least the ones with driver's licenses.

1 comment about "Can America Get Its Money Back, Please? ".
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  1. Kevin Horne from Verizon, September 21, 2009 at 4:53 p.m.

    excerpts from a single paragraph above:

    "A number of years ago The New York Times? covered a new Buick campaign in its Advertising column. It had some sort of tag like "Technology" or "Creative Motoring" or "To Infinity and Beyond." When asked about why a positioning (such as it was) was selected, the agency VP said something like..."

    number of years? 3? 5? 50? what?
    note the question mark next to NY Times. not sure of source?
    "some sort" of tag
    VP said "something like" (followed by quotation marks!)

    That completely fabricated paragraph ought to say enough about the strength of this piece, but then later we get this:
    "Of the four remaining GM brands, three stand for nothing."

    But none of them are shown in what follows (which is called "what would go something like this").

    G.I. = G.O.

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