It strikes Mr. Lackey - a dedicated Saab driver, it must be said - that GM "has no real story. They have no brand image that's meaningful, aside from Cadillac." (Mr. Lackey lives in Franklin Lakes, N.J., and notes that the Escalade appears to be the status symbol of choice with both soccer moms and the likes of local resident and ex-New York Giants quarterback, Phil Simms.)
The newly contrite GM is now apologizing for overpopulating the car lots with too many brands and too many models. As with the Romeos at Pine View, the company is aggressively paring the dealer network: Of the approximately 6,200 car and light truck dealerships on record in the United States as of January, as many as 2,600 could be closed by the end of next year. In Canada, between 240 and 280 or as much as 40 per cent of the country's roughly 700 dealerships will close in the next 18 months.
James Gregory, chief executive officer of CoreBrand, says what GM has been left with is a "shell of a brand." The New York-based company, with offices in Los Angeles and Minneapolis, analyzes brands and the value they create. By CoreBrand's math, the portion of GM's market capitalization attributable to the brand name was $4.86-billion (U.S.) in 2003. In 2008, GM's brand equity had been "squandered," to use Mr. Gregory's terminology, all the way down to $320-million.
"They have been walking away from just tremendous value of their corporate brand while allowing their competitors to grow the value of their brands," Mr. Gregory says. "They not only destroyed their product brands, they just lost all credibility."
What the car company desperately needs is an effective marketing message, a rallying cry for the company's survival, Mr. Gregory suggests, citing Lee Iacocca's legendary "If you can find a better car, buy it" line for Chrysler in the eighties. "It's a marketing message, but it's one of leadership."
Problematically for GM, the company's new CEO, Fritz Henderson, has no personal brand cachet, having been on the job for fewer than three months. On Thursday, the CEO engaged in a live online Web chat answering burning questions from customers. "Will the Corvette survive as the V8-engined rear-wheel-driven icon we all love?" Answer: "Yes, my wonderful baby is my 2005 Corvette. We have more in store for the future and this iconic brand will retain its powerful place in the new GM." Will the Pontiac G8 live on as a Chevy? "No."
Allan Kazmer, a legend in the Canadian advertising industry, says it's time for GM to be fearless. "I would have been self-accusatory," he says of the message the company needs to convey now. "People are emotionally attached to theirs cars. It's not just an object."
Years ago, Mr. Kazmer had a bird's-eye view of how GM managed its marketing message. For 31/2 years, starting in 1965, he worked at GM's ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, in Detroit. "I worked in the Chevrolet print department … We had 27 art directors and writers just working on the print alone, if you can imagine that," he says. Getting an ad approved meant pushing through the internal workings at the ad agency, and then Chevrolet product information people, and the car company's own ad department, and then the head of the division, followed by GM corporate. "So you see this built-in bureaucracy which creates mediocrity … It was so bureaucratic and so layered. This is part of what's wrong with the corporation itself," Mr. Kazmer says.
He recalls an ad he did get approved for the Chevy II: "The Chevy II puts the kibosh on rust," was the ad line. "That doesn't sound like revolutionary advertising, but after I got the word kibosh through, several of us copywriters went out and got drunk to celebrate that I actually snuck living language into an ad." Mr. Kazmer finds precisely the right word to assess the company's latest marketing efforts: "Platitudinous."
In 1981, Mr. Kazmer became international creative director for ad agency DDB in Toronto, a point worth mentioning because it was the "B" in DDB - Bill Bernbach - who created the "Think Small" campaign that launched the Volkswagen beetle in North America. With spare, intelligent advertising, DDB took, as Mr. Kazmer says, "an ugly-looking little car with a bad heater" and went up against the American car market. The car as anti-hero. Here's a line that Mr. Kazmer used many times when teaching students of advertising: "You sell to the heart and the heart seizes the mind."
Ford having a Fiesta
A video posted to YouTube last month features British TV car show host Jeremy Clarkson putting a Ford Fiesta through an extreme road test for Top Gear ("The World's Greatest Car TV Show"). The show, which airs on the BBC, follows Mr. Clarkson as he races a celery green Fiesta through a shopping mall, and conducts a sort of landing on the beach of Normandy with the Fiesta zooming off a Royal Marines landing craft and then coursing through the ocean froth under cover of fake artillery fire. ("Hey look at that!" exclaims Mr. Clarkson. "The smoke grenades fit perfectly in the cup holders.")