By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. In contemplating our AE “Brand Image Meter” column over the weekend - our annual deep dive into the current state of automotive branding - one glaring takeaway from it stood out for me. And that is the fact that GM, one of the top three automobile companies in the world, has been operating without a Chief Marketing Officer - for three years.
Why? Well, it’s a tale filled with egomaniacal behavior run amok, rampant paranoia and a dollop of flat-out cluelessness thrown in for good measure. The last executive to hold the position was Joel Ewanick, but he was summarily dismissed by then-CEO Dan “Captain Queeg” Akerson in a fit of pique over the fact that Ewanick was getting more coverage in The Wall Street Journal than he was. Don't believe it? For the ego maniacal Akerson, it was simply unacceptable that any GM executive would deign to get more press coverage than he did, so he jettisoned the CMO, but not without creating a fog of crap designed to besmirch Ewanick’s reputation.
The “spin” fabricated by GM’s legal troops on orders from Akerson (ably abetted by one Selim Bingol, Akerson’s PR bagman at the time and now plying his trade at Duke Energy) suggested that there were a series of transgressions attributable to Ewanick that were simply unacceptable and borderline fraudulent, and he was terminated because of it. But the official company explanations offered simply didn’t wash, and in the end it was total unmitigated bullshit
That Akerson was the Chairman Emeritus of Unctuous Prick University and one of the most reprehensibly loathsome individuals ever to haunt the executive suite at General Motors has been well-documented by yours truly, and I’m not going to revisit his odious legacy now. But suffice to say, Ewanick was railroaded out of the company because of Akerson’s unbridled ego, plain and simple. And to make things worse, certain GM executives whom I know - and still respect - were forced at figurative gunpoint to “spin” Ewanick’s departure to me. As if.
From that point forward the internal rallying cry generated by Akerson and pounded into the executive hierarchy at the time was that there would be no more "rock star" CMOs at GM, that the very idea of a CMO was an unnecessary and avoidable evil. And the other not-so-subtle warning to the executive troops was that there was really only one GM executive who deserved media attention, as if anyone had a question as to who that would be.
Unfortunately in the transition from Akerson’s departure to Mary Barra’s ascendency something got lost, and that cloud of derisiveness hanging over the marketing function at GM remains intact. No more "rock star" CMOs became “no more CMOs" period, and it's incomprehensible that this situation still grips the company.
The current climate in the GM executive suite suggests that it’s either a “we’re too busy to bother with it” dismissiveness, or, “our siloed divisions are getting along just fine without adding another body to the executive hierarchy,” but whatever the reasons it isn’t working. As a matter of fact, GM looks ridiculous for it and it has become simply unfathomable that it has dragged on this long.
Case in point? Several weeks ago GMC launched a new TV commercial for its Denali line called “Sharp” that was, sans the copy, eerily similar in look and feel to the much ballyhooed Cadillac campaign “Dare Greatly,” which made its debut a few months earlier.
Both spots make extensive use of moody, black & white footage shot in New York City, and both spots – at a glance – look to originate from the same creative cut of cloth. This is a real problem on several levels, not the least of which is the fact that GMC’s luxury line of SUVs and crossovers slots just underneath Cadillac in terms of positioning, price and brand image. The fact that GM - after jettisoning several divisions while in the throes of bankruptcy - is still having problems with their slimmed-down divisional offerings bumping up against each other in the market is a complete travesty. Add to that the confusion the GMC spot presents to the uninitiated viewer out in ConsumerVille, and you have a giant, heaping, steaming bowl of Not Good.
The similarities in visual execution between the GMC and Cadillac spots never should have happened, and any CMO worth his or her chops would have stopped the creative concept behind that GMC spot in its tracks, sending all concerned back to the drawing board in the quest for an original idea.
But that’s just one example. There are others, like the fact that “Find New Roads” – the brand theme line for Chevrolet – is going absolutely nowhere. As I said last week, Chevrolet is one of the most iconic automotive brands in history and they have some of the best products they’ve ever had. I want to feel moved by that, yet I don’t. Why is that? It’s because “Find New Roads” undersells the brand to the point of invisibility, that’s why, and it remains one of the most dismal, excruciatingly ill-fitting brand themes in this business. And the harder Chevrolet marketers try to pound it into the American psyche, the worse it gets. The fact that the powers that be at Chevrolet haven’t admitted defeat with “FNR” is yet another glaring example of how not having a Chief Marketing Officer is absolutely killing GM – and GM’s brands.
How GM can continue conducting itself in this manner is one of the mysteries of the automotive world. I not only see a fundamental lack of understanding in GM’s executive suite as to what role marketing plays in the success or failure of its brands, I sense a level of complete derision and mistrust of the marketing function, and it manifests itself in boneheaded advertising decisions and non-decisions every day. (The latest example of which is the new Chevrolet truck advertising that pits the Chevy pickup vs. Ford F-150, decrying the expense and repair costs of the Ford’s use of aluminum. It’s a time-honored “crosstown chatter” ad campaign that I’m sure is generating chuckles in conference rooms down in the Silver Silos, but in reality is nothing more than a complete waste of time and money. But I digress…)
That GM’s hierarchy doesn’t believe a CMO is necessary is absolutely astounding to me and I don’t know if it’s arrogance – as expressed in the attitude that they don’t need no stinkin’ CMO – or abject fear, that a CMO would somehow disrupt their lives, but it’s flat-out ridiculous.
I get the distinct impression that Mary Barra and her troops at the top of the company actually believe that the divisional silos can handle everything on their own, that this is in line with their new enlightened model for the company going forward, part of that “new culture” mantra being beaten into everyone within earshot and trotted out for the edification of the media. Except that it’s glaringly apparent that this notion isn’t working. There are too many marketing gaffes and missteps, too many missed marketing opportunities and too much brand chaos roiling the waters for GM in the market. And it’s simply inexcusable that a company of this size is actually conducting its business this way.
GM needs an overall marketing guiding force that gets involved in every inch of the company’s image wrangling efforts, everything from corporate image campaigns and PR initiatives, to divisional brand advertising launches. Because as we've seen, left to their own devices bad or redundant advertising gets made and fundamental marketing issues fall through the cracks.
That’s why it’s called a Chief Marketing Officer, in case Barra & Co. needs to be reminded, and someone down there better get a clue, because the way they’re operating now - which amounts to throwing things up against a wall to see what sticks – just isn’t cutting it.
Strange days indeed.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.