Friday, January 12, 2007

GM aim: Show its softer side

Wednesday, January 10, 2007
GM aim: Show its softer side
Sharon Terlep / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- Global restructuring, cost cutting and a revamped product line are the forces driving General Motors Corp.'s turnaround bid.

But another less tangible factor has grabbed the attention of the world's largest automaker: likability.

Long viewed as stodgy and ultra-corporate, GM is making a concerted effort to show a more human and personal side of the world's largest automaker.

"There's a feeling that GM is the big, insensitive colossus that needs to be kicked regularly," said Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman for product development. Lutz, a former top Chrysler executive, said one factor that helped that automaker's comeback in the 1980s was its image as a scrappy underdog that Americans rallied behind.

"The perceptual problem remains our greatest hurdle," he said of GM.

With that in mind, GM used the stage of the North American International Auto Show to bring out the personality in its executives and remind people that it's a company made up of real people who care about cars and customers.

So when the automaker's top executives arrived for the star-studded GM Style celebrity fashion show Saturday, none of them wore a tie.

Then, at Monday's debut of the Cadillac CTS luxury sedan, a group of GM employees that included a Lansing factory worker and an interior designer, among others, took the stage in place of the typical corporate types.

And Tuesday's launch of the 2008 Malibu sedan featured a skit in which Chevrolet General Manager Ed Peper got a faux image makeover from a celebrity stylist. The clip included Peper's wife bemoaning his lack of flair and a quip from Lutz that the Chevy chief's wardrobe is "most unremarkable."

GM wants to connect

GM wants to connect with consumers on an emotional level.

"There is this perception that we just don't get it, that we're this Midwest bureaucratic, smokestack kind of company," said GM sales chief Mark LaNeve. "That couldn't be further from the truth."

GM's message incorporates not just an amiable personality, but also things like an ability to be flexible and a commitment to diversity. And it stretches beyond the auto show. GM is incorporating real people into ads and working on an initiative called the Arlington Project. That effort has some 50 GM representatives waging a direct marketing campaign and meeting with local dealers and media to talk about the good things going on in Detroit in 16 cities from Sacramento, Calif., to Buffalo, N.Y.

"They're trying to say, 'Hey, come back to us, we're not the same company,' " J.D. Power and Associates auto analyst Jeff Schuster said. "They're trying to get out that they're not this stodgy large, massive company that moves with the speed of an amoeba."

To be sure, GM's problems run far deeper than image. The company lost $91 million in the third quarter of 2006 and continues to struggle with falling market share, excess capacity at its plants and soaring health costs. But GM is making progress. It has cut billions of dollars from its operating costs, generated hype and praise for its products and last year cut a major health care deal with the United Auto Workers union. Still, perception problems continue to dog the company.

Ford had same idea

GM isn't the first to highlight its sensitive side, an approach that's garnered at best mixed results among Detroit's Big Three.

Ford Motor Co. took the real-people angle last year with a series of touchy-feely ads that featured images of Americana such as a father teaching his son to drive and a mother and daughter jumping into a mountain lake.

But neither of those ads nor an online documentary series chronicling the company's turnaround that ended last week generated a wave of gushy hype.

The sentimental chord doesn't play with consumers like Dan Schaffrin, a mechanical engineer in Groveland, Ill.

"I could care less how friendly or personable GM is," said Schaffrin, 62. "What would make more sense to me is if GM or the other companies would give consumers a little more opportunity to provide input on new concept vehicles before production. If they want to tune into the public, that's one way to do it."

You can reach Sharon Terlep at (313) 223-4686 or

© Copyright 2007 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


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