Chairman to be GM’s pitchman in new ads
AP Source: Chairman to be GM’s pitchman in new ads
By TOM KRISHER and EMILY FREDRIX , 09.09.09, 08:26 PM EDT
General Motors Co. Chairman Edward Whitacre Jr. will be the pitchman who starts the automaker’s new advertising campaign this weekend with television spots urging people to try GM’s new vehicles, a person briefed on the campaign said Wednesday.
Whitacre, former CEO of telecommunications giant AT&T, was brought on to lead the board by the U.S. government in June as GM was preparing to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
In the ads, Whitacre will point to vehicles such as the Chevrolet Malibu sedan, Chevrolet Equinox crossover and the Cadillac CTS as signs of a resurgent company, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the campaign hasn’t been made public.
The spots will be followed by advertising that will focus on GM’s four remaining brands, Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac. Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, who was brought back from the brink of retirement to head GM’s marketing efforts, has championed brand advertising as opposed to promotion of the corporation.
Whitacre has been pushing for faster change at the auto giant. Last month he said after the board’s first meeting in Detroit that it ordered management to bring some new vehicles to market faster.
"There were some changes made. This board’s going to be very active. We’re charged with doing well for the stockholders," he said at the time. He would not reveal what vehicles will be pulled ahead.
GM is 60.8 percent owned by the government, which has pumped $50 billion into the company to save it from liquidation. The Detroit automaker emerged from bankruptcy protection on July 10.
Some experts say GM missed an opportunity to unveil its new marketing campaign during the government’s highly publicized and successful Cash for Clunkers rebate program, which offered up to $4,500 to people trading in inefficient vehicles for more fuel-efficient ones.
The company has been dropping hints that its new marketing will play up its brands and play down their connection to the corporate parent. The No. 1 U.S. automaker must combat the negative association of GM with its Chapter 11 filing and the government bailout.
The new campaign will debut as U.S. auto sales are expected to return to pre-clunker levels. Before the clunker rebates in July and August, sales had dropped to their lowest levels in more than a quarter century. So, the campaign will debut as the entire auto industry fights to sell to a shrinking number of buyers.
"It’s going to be dog-eat-dog," said Deborah Mitchell, executive fellow at the Center for Brand and Product Management at Wisconsin School of Business. "There’s going to be a big drop (in sales). It’s going to be more important than ever for them to get out there."
She said GM should have jumped on the Cash for Clunkers program and talk about its success there. GM cars were the second-most popular brand sold under the program, accounting for 17.6 percent of trade-ins, after Toyota’s 19.4 percent, though none of GM’s models cracked the top 10. GM could have played up that performance to show its cars are desirable. It didn’t and Toyota and Honda are largely seen as the winners, Mitchell said.
"It was a great opportunity. The autos category was very much on people’s minds this summer. Cash for Clunkers was in the news every day," she said.
GM knows it has been quiet, so expect it to advertise heavily in the fourth quarter, said Peter De Lorenzo, publisher of autoextremist.com, a Web site that follows and is often critical of the auto industry and GM.
"They know they’ve been sitting on the sidelines too long due to the bankruptcy, and they have to crank it up, and they have to generate some noise again," he said.
The former ad executive, however, does not think GM damaged its business by launching its campaign after Cash for Clunkers. Any new campaign would have gotten lost in the shuffle of the program, which saw many automakers boost their advertising, he said.
GM’s campaign is reminiscent of a campaign featuring Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca in the 1980s as the company rose from near death to repay $1.2 billion in government-guaranteed loans.
Iacocca became famous for pitching new products such as the smaller, more-efficient K-Car sedans. He went on television to challenge viewers with his oft-parodied line: "If you can find a better car, buy it."