By Michael Bush
General Motors Corp. marketing chief Bob Lutz swears the automaker’s new TV spots featuring GM Chairman Ed Whitacre are nothing like the Lee Iacocca ads Chrysler ran back in the 1980s.
Mr. Whitacre, a white-haired former telecom exec, is the perfect choice to help re-introduce a damaged brand to a country of skeptical consumers, Mr. Lutz said, batting back what he said were rumors that Mr. Whitacre demanded he be the next Lee Iacocca and featured in these ads.
"What we were looking for was a highly credible spokesperson who would be a new fresh face," Mr. Lutz said, noting that Mr. Whitacre "is the new guy in town. He’s tall, good looking, has impeccable white hair and has this nice soft Texas drawl and limps a little bit when he walks, which sort of gives him this old cowboy look."
Mr. Whitacre is the public face only of the first phase of GM’s "May the Best Car Win" campaign, which is an aggressive effort directly pitting its models against rivals. The multimillion-dollar campaign breaking next week also encompasses print, viral marketing and social media. Not only does it represent a significant increase in ad spending for GM, it also required some guts for a company that was begging for billions of dollars from Congress less than a year ago.
The campaign will pit the Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC brands against competitors and includes a 60-day money-back guarantee for consumers not satisfied with their purchase. Mr. Lutz said GM is "supremely confident" that consumers will be satisfied with its new models.
"We can look anybody in the eye and say we are as good as or better than anyone else," Mr. Lutz said. "In almost every respect our current lineup can compare with any volume producers’ lineup from anywhere on the globe. We believe feature by feature we more than stand up to the competition."
The ads will feature GM cars from its four product lines pitted against Japanese and German luxury brands. The print ads will show the two automobiles facing one another separated by a big V (for "versus") and list details of both cars’ features, performance, fuel economy and warranties.
One ad will feature the 2010 Chevy Equinox vs. 2010 Honda CRV; another will have the 2010 Buick LaCrosse stacked up against the 2010 Lexus ES 350. Mr. Lutz said in the rare cases when both cars match each other feature for feature and warranty for warranty, the difference will be illustrated in sticker price.
Mr. Lutz said that outside of the automotive media and the Midwest most consumers don’t realize GM’s cars match up well against foreign competitors and this campaign is "big bet" on the power of communications and advertising’s ability to help remedy that.
"We have to close this monumental chasm between the reality of today’s GM product line up and the public’s perception of that line up," Mr. Lutz said. "We have to somehow get the word out and in the past I have always said that it’s going to take time or unfortunately it’s not my responsibility. It is now my responsibility. So we are going to try and take a big chunk of that huge gap and we have to earn consumer confidence and demonstrate why buying one of our cars is a wise choice. The time to get the word out is now. We are not going to dribble this out of a watering can we are going to use a fire hose."
And while he called this a corporate campaign, nowhere will the words "General Motors" or a GM logo appear in any of the creative. That decision was based on what Mr. Lutz called a large degree of hostility and negative feeling toward GM since the government bailout.
"The interesting thing is GM is disliked but the brands aren’t hated," he said. "It’s like the parents went bankrupt but the kids had nothing to do with it. So we decided using the GM symbol and name as an umbrella for product or corporate advertising was not a good thing to do. We have to concentrate everything on standalone brands and come out from this corporate umbrella, which in the very best of times was neutral, but recently has not helped the brands and in fact tarnished them somewhat. We are emancipating the brands and trotting them out in the open."
Mr. Whitacre will only appear in spots until Sept. 20; the remaining ads and creative scheduled to run through 2010 will be focused all on product. GM’s choice to use the chairman had created some negative buzz in Detroit circles, a fact Mr. Lutz acknowledged — and beat down.
He said that the very day of GM’s news conference to announce the ads a retired ad executive told him that using Mr. Whitacre was the dumbest thing GM had ever done.
"The guy didn’t know what he was talking about," Mr. Lutz said. "[He] doesn’t realize the only thing we are doing is using the independent guy who is a very successful and respected businessman in another industry who was asked by the federal government to assume this responsibility and who is now initially with a little bit of reluctance and a great deal of doubt has immersed himself in GM." #