Thursday, February 01, 2007

Can GM make hip happen?

Saturday, January 27, 2007
Can GM make hip happen?
From YouTube to Jay-Z to student stunts, the automaker works the cool factor.
Sharon Terlep / The Detroit News

General Motors Corp. wants a hip replacement.

So the automaker infiltrated YouTube and put pop star Gwen Stefani in an SUV.

It let rapper Jay-Z create a paint color and got a bunch of college students to live for a week inside a compact car.

It's all part of a campaign dreamed up by the marketing minds at GM to create an aura of cool around the vehicle lineup they're working to reinvent.

But can a mega-company `like GM -- built on mass appeal and known more for trend-following than trend-setting -- really make hip happen?

Marketing efforts to finesse an image of hipness, including a few from GM, have failed -- sometimes badly. Think New Coke.

Strike the right chord, though, and the risk is well worth the payoff. Especially in a world where word-of-mouth spreads so fast and wide that buzz has become a multimillion dollar commodity.

"Everybody wants to be young and hip," said Dino Bernacchi, GM manager of branding and entertainment. "Everybody wants to be youthful and feel good and live vicariously through these celebrities. Sure, everybody criticizes it, but then we can't get our eyes off of it."

GM managed an image turnaround before, when once-stodgy Cadillac became Hollywood's hip-hop brand of choice with the Escalade SUV. Even the most astute marketing maven couldn't have predicted that. Now GM hopes to duplicate that success with other products.

For all the eye-rolling criticism of corporate branding and marketing tactics, there's no doubt the efforts pay off when it comes to drawing attention to products.

Take GM's star-studded celebrity car and fashion show earlier this month. The event garnered reams of media attention and landed GM models in national publications such as US Weekly magazine.

"There was a day where you could manage or limit the word of mouth about what was said about your brand, but that's over," said Timothy Blett, president of the Doner advertising agency in Southfield, which created the Mazda "zoom, zoom, zoom" campaign. "If your product is considered youthful, there is going to be more press, more buzz on the Internet. Being considered hip by the youth culture creates additional PR in some of the most powerful forms of communication."

Stars lead image change

GM knows that changing public perception is one of the biggest battles in its North American turnaround. While much of that work is focused on vehicle quality, design and resale values, the image of GM's eight brands also is key.

The task faced by the world's biggest automaker is especially tough because GM isn't a newcomer. Few Americans have not heard of GM -- and the image they have is often less than flattering.

To turn that around, GM is employing tactics both conventional and unconventional.

Cultivating star power has been the most noticeable approach. From having Tiger Woods unveil the new Buick Enclave crossover last year in Los Angeles to last month's fashion show to kick off the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, GM has made a concerted effort to get some Hollywood-style glitz behind its brands.

In the midst of rocker Stefani's video for "The Sweet Escape," the camera cuts away to the clearly recognizable grill of a taxi-yellow Chevrolet Tahoe. Meanwhile, GM's global color studio worked with Jay-Z to create a special blue color for the Denali SUV. And rapper 50-Cent made a showing at the GM exhibit at the show to check out performance models of the Pontiac G6.

It's all about the air time

Companies love to have the famous pitch their wares. Many pay to have their products show up in the movies or on TV, or they give stars the items for free. Celebrities often will seek out a particular vehicle to use or customize.

Almost every automaker has a fleet of cars specifically for use in films and on TV, and most big productions have a team whose sole job is to find the right products.

"There's just something that has people connected to celebrities and has everybody wanting more," Bernacchi said. "But there has to be a balance. They can't look like they're shilling the product."

Transparent efforts tend to be shunned by the folks companies are trying to woo.

Some critics joked about the omnipresence of Ford Motor Co. models in the latest James Bond flick, "Casino Royale." The Dr. Z ads featuring Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Chrysler Group parent DaimlerChrysler AG and former Chrysler CEO, fell flat.

GM's has had its own missteps. The 1996 Super Bowl commercial featuring a leather-clad Cindy Crawford bombed.

And the automaker generated a good amount of not-so-nice Internet commentary over a video clip that surfaced last fall on video-sharing phenomenon YouTube that showed Tiger Woods filming a TV ad for Buick. GM produced the 60-second clip, but tried to pass it off as a bootlegged video leaked onto the Web, complete with grainy images, muffled audio and unsteady camera work. The video even captured Woods making a mildly off-color wisecrack when a noisy airplane buzzed overhead and interrupted filming. "Excuse me," Woods said, cracking up bystanders.

A comment from one YouTube viewer: "Very weak attempt at 'viral' marketing. It's almost as cringe-inducing as the notion of Tiger driving a Buick."

Product must back the buzz

Image is only part of the fight to win back consumers, since bad products can't be saved by good buzz.

"You got to get hipper and trendier with the cars, and we are," GM's Bernacchi said.

GM is doing its best to mount a turnaround on the product side with an aggressive new vehicle line that focuses on more dramatic designs, improved performance and quality interiors. Much of the work has garnered good reviews from analysts and critics.

"You can't do all this stuff and then come out with bland products," said auto analyst Erich Merkle of IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids. "You've got to be able to back it up."

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

© Copyright 2007 The Detroit News. All rights reserved.


Post a Comment

<< Home