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GM's Big Idea
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Even The Best Super Bowl Ad Won't Take The Place Of Doing Something Differently

GM plans to make a big splash on next year's Super Bowl, which I find surprising and disappointing.

It's a surprise because it's such a dumb idea. Ads on the Super Bowl are a rarefied group intended to one-up one another with creative and/or sleaze (or both). It's a big viewership event, for sure, but brands have to pay big time for the privilege of exposure while dumbing down the marketing content so there's any hope of breaking through the clutter. Super Bowl ads are reviewed and remembered as advertising, not meaningful communication. GM use to waste money on it back when it used to waste money on everything. It was a dumb idea then, and it's still a dumb idea now...for any brand.

I'm disappointed because the decision comes from Joel Ewanick, who proved to be an absolutely brilliant marketer at Hyundai. Back when the Detroit automakers were flushing billions down the toilet running commercials filled with useless slogans and footage of cars driving on winding roads, Ewanick was busy helping Hyundai develop truly differentiated and meaningful marketing, like guarantees that buyers could return their cars if they lose their jobs, and a program to let folks hedge gas costs. These weren't typically sexy ideas, but combined with Hyundai's service package they were absolutely smart ideas that sold cars. I think that success is what got him the gig at GM.

So why fall into the trap of big event advertising? The only answer I could come up with is that GM has something big to announce. Its Super Bowl package will focus on Chevrolet, which represents 70% of GM's sales and 70% of its ad budget overall (according to the Journal). Chevy is all but synonymous with GM, having been one of its brands since 1917. Maybe Ewanick's strategy is to go far beyond the typical ad creative nonsense and use the platform to tell the world something like:

  • The division will source and make its entire product line in the USA. It's forsaking the patriotic imagery and committing to jobs and parts purchases in X number of communities across the nation, and inviting Americans to contribute to the success of the brand as employees, vendors, suppliers, and purchasers.
  • It plans to be the first carbon neutral car company. Chevy will only sell highly fuel-efficient vehicles, adapt its factories, use recycled materials, and purchase offsets to reduce not only its manufacturing but the consumer use of its products to a net-zero environmental impact. Car buyers will get novel ways to participate in this effort.
  • Chevy will blow up its distribution and sales model. It's 2010 and we still buy cars from middlemen like we did 50 years ago. Pricing structures are still skewed heavily to benefit sellers, not buyers (i.e. no distributor has ever met a leasing deal they didn't like). What if Chevys will be sold direct, and/or bought as ongoing investments in the brand vs. outright purchases of sheet metal?

The problem is that if GM has really big news to release, it shouldn't have to bury it in the noise of the Super Bowl. News announcements are their own events and there are evermore creative ways to promote them (LeBron’s job choice being an example of just one new way to do it). Also, important stuff gets told from the ground up, not through a high-priced megaphone, so if Chevy has something substantive to say it could be getting its rank-and-file communities to talk about it. I couldn't imagine a more perfect rationale for an extensive social media strategy.

More to the point, the information that ultimately transforms a brand into something different isn't advertising, and it isn't related to events whatsoever. It's doing business differently. That's what made GM's Saturn division such a wonderful invention (it was conceived as an independent car company) and what led to its downfall (it got integrated into GM). Hal Riney's great early advertising was creative expression of fact, not fiction. No ad agency can step up to this challenge. The company has to do it first.

I sure hope GM has a big idea in the works. Running ads on the Super Bowl isn't it.

Added: 9th August 2010


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