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In great advertising, God is in the details.

I’ve never heard such a hush fall over a Superbowl party. The commercial titled “So God Made Farmers” disrupted things almost as much as the Superdome power outage.

If you don’t think poetry has a place in business and marketing, think again. Just listen to these words:

“God said, I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to yean lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-comb pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the leg of a meadowlark. So God made a farmer…”

Farmer image for Ram Trucks Superbowl ad

“I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from an ash tree, shoe a horse with hunk of car tire, who can make a harness out hay wire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. Who, during planting time and harvest season will finish his 40-hour week by Tuesday noon and then, paining from tractor back, put in another 72 hours.” So God made the farmer.

The imagery is arresting. The pacing and rapid-fire alliteration, perfect. The details, unquestionably credible.

And that voice… The choice of using Paul Harvey’s original voice-over was a genius move. For 45 years Paul Harvey he was the Walter Cronkite of the radio… everyone knew him and every marketing guy in the country wanted him pitching their products. When his name appeared on the screen, every baby boomer stopped.

Rich Lowry, Editor of the National Review wrote, “Delivered by Harvey, who could make a pitch for laundry detergent sound like a passage from the King James Bible, it packs great rhetorical force.” Listening to it can make someone who never would want to touch cows, especially before dawn, wonder why he didn’t have the good fortune to have to milk them twice a day. In short, it is a memorably compelling performance, and without bells or whistles (of most superbowl spots.)

“The spot stuck out for thoroughly how un-Super Bowl it was. It’s a wonder that CBS didn’t refuse to air it on grounds that it wasn’t appropriate for the occasion. It was simple. It was quiet. It was thoughtful. It was eloquent. It was everything that our celebrity-soaked pop culture, which dominates Super Bowl Sunday almost as much as football does, is not.

It wasn’t just a subtle tug on our heartstrings, but a two-ton pull that produced dramatic results. It’s been viewed over 10 million times in just one week. 10 million voluntary impressions, above and beyond all the eyeballs that were glued to the TV in the 4th quarter of the game last Sunday. And according to Bluefin Labs, which specializes in analytics for social television, the Ram spot was “the most social commercial” of the game, generating 402,000 comments in social media.

If you think the Superbowl is only for outlandishly juvenile spots full of big boobs and talking animals, there’s still hope. AdWeek magazine said it was the #1 spot of the year, with the Budweiser baby Clydesdale coming in at number 2. (Another heartwarming story)

But it was not a new idea. Truck companies have been using this sort of borrowed interest for years, leveraging the themes of hard work, craftsmanship, and salt-of-the-earth American values. But the details in the execution, this time, were far superior.

Paul Harvey actually wrote that riveting monologue back in 1978 for the national FFA convention. The words themselves pack such force, the pictures almost seem like an afterthought.

Kudos to The Richard’s Group for producing it. And to the folks at Ram who approved it. There are a million ways they could have screwed it up.

First, many marketing execs would never approve the use of the word “God” in a commercial, for fear of offending the 70% the population who don’t go to church regularly.

Many companies, in an effort to save money and maximize their media buy, would cut corners when it comes to photography.

Not this time. They didn’t opt for cheap stock images. Instead, the agency commissioned 10 photographers, including William Albert Allard of National Geographic and documentary photographer Kurt Markus, to create the images that form the commercial’s backdrop. Gorgeous.

The only problem is, the connection to the Ram Brand was a bit of a stretch for me. (But then, I’m not a truck driver, nor a farmer.)

Ram is a brand that’s attempting to reinvent itself. No more “Dodge Ram.” Now it’s just Ram, and they’re looking for things — themes and concepts — to affiliate themselves with.

Might as well be God, and country, and hard-working farmers. With great execution, during the biggest game of the year, it’s hard to go wrong with that.

9 Marketing lessons from GM — Will a $30 billion bailout buy them some focus?

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The top guns of the American auto industry parked their private jets, piled into their big, luxury hybreds, and headed back to Washington last week. The goal: 50 billion dollars in loans, credit and other forms of bailout money. The second installment of what one reporter called, “a long term payment plan in $35 billion installments.”

There’s no doubt GM’s failure would a terrible economic blow. Those jobs would be sorely missed, but would anyone miss the mediocre brands that GM’s been consistently producing for the last 35 years?

I don’t think so. Other than some loyal Chevy truck fans, consumers won’t miss a beat.

GM’s business problems are far reaching and complex. The Wall Street Journal says “it’s a bloated organization with too many dealers and too many factories producing too many cars for the marketplace.” (GM has 7000 dealers in the U.S. Toyota outsells them with just 1500.) The company is burning through cash faster than a Suburban sucks gas — $75 million a day, according to one account. Turning that land yacht around is is going to be much harder than anyone’s predicting. As one consultant said… “Even with a generous series of government loans, GM is likely to go bankrupt within the next two years.”

Let’s face it. GM has been losing ground slowly but surely since muscle cars were killed by the oil embargo of the 1970’s. If congress looks at the situation from a marketing standpoint, they wouldn’t cough up a dime.

According to Automobile magazine, “it’s been 50 years since GM built a car that was the standard of the industry in any category.” Overall, GM products have been poor in all respects, from design and driveability to safety and fuel efficiency.

I believe that GM’s quality issues and their current financial crisis is a direct reflection Alfred P. Sloan’s famous, flawed strategy of “a car for every purse and purpose.” Sorry, but quantity over quality just doesn’t work in the modern automotive industry.

GM’s business model for the past 30 years has been built around the assumption that they can keep making money off products that are unremarkable, at best. But even when you’re as big as GM, you can’t be all things to all people. Over time, that lack of focus is going to kill you.

Look at GM’s track record in the small-car market. First they had the Chevette and the notorious Vega, a car reknown for being the first aluminum block engine ever produced… (not exactly the type of innovation that propels a company into a new era.)

While Honda, Toyota and Nissan were dominating that market in the 80’s, GM introduced The X-cars… the Citation, Omega, Phoenix and Skylark. Yikes! Those weren’t economy cars, they were just awful, underpowered sedans.

GM fumbled around for 20 years trying to build a small car under the wrong brand: Cadillac. Remember the Cimmeron? It’s on Time Magazine’s list of the worst cars ever built. And the Catera, “the caddy that zigs.” The advertising was unbelievable and the product, unbelievably bad. For consumers, a small, sporty Cadillac just doesn’t compute.

Then there was Saturn, GM’s great hope of 1990. Nothing in the history of GM could match the enormity of this brand’s launch. They built a state-of-the-art manufacturing plant in Springhill Tennessee. They opened a new dealer network and adopted innovative new marketing and customer service programs, including a policy of “no haggle pricing.” To their credit, they did everything differently in order to compete with the Japanese.

Despite the plastic body panels, Saturn succeeded for a while. The cars were affordable, and they even won some industry accolades in the subcompact category. Unfortunately, GM starved that division of cash, kept them from launching new products for 10 years, and now is contemplating a shutdown of that brand.

So they can’t compete in the small car market. But what about GM’s bread and butter categories, like vanilla-flavored sedans? Unfortunately, they’ve even been losing on that front as well. The Ford Taurus was the best-selling car in the country for years, followed by the domestically produced Toyota Camry. In the meantime, The Oldsmobile brand limped along for years before GM execs finally pulled the plug in 1999. They tried all sorts of marketing ploys to save it, including more than a dozen different slogans for the brand over a 15 year period. They did everything BUT build a car that appealed to anyone.

GM missed the boat entirely on the minivan craze, and they were slow to market with their SUVs. (But no one will deny the success of the Suburban.) GM actually had the lead in green technology in the late 90’s with the EV1 electric car, but they pulled the plug on that for short-term financial reasons. Now, while the Toyota Prius flies out of showrooms, GM’s playing catch-up yet again with the Chevy Volt. The volt is not a hybred. It’s actually an electric car, leaps ahead of Toyota in the green car game. It plugs in and it looks racy too, but it might be too late to the starting line.

Clearly, GM has been all over the place strategically. Now it looks like the bailout will force them to focus their efforts a bit. There’s already talk of paring the product line-up, and in the recent Senate hearings GM execs said their new strategy is “to focus available resources and growth strategies on the companies profitable operations.”

I guess that means four core brands… Chevy, Buick, GMC and Cadillac. And potentially four more marketing failures: Pontiac, Saab, Saturn and the king of them all, Hummer. (Don’t even get me started on that.)

Even with the forced focus on just four brands, GM will have a difficult time turning a profit. According to Automobile Magazine, the Cadillac CTS is actually one of GM’s small glimmers of hope for something better down the road. “It’s not relevant at $60k, but it’s a reminder that GM knows how to build a very special automobile. It’s the pride of Lansing Michigan and proof positive that GM has a lively pulse.”

Hmmmm. How can a car be “not relevant” in the market, but hopeful? And why does the mainstream press assume that GM will suddenly “start building fuel efficient cars that people want to buy” as soon as this bailout comes through? They haven’t done it yet. And no marketing blitz or government bailout can turn a lousy product into a branding success.

There’s an old saying in advertising circles… “great advertising just kills a bad product faster.” Sadly, GM’s history is littered with products that died fast, deserving deaths.

5 classic positioning strategy

Positioning — It's not what you SAY. It's what they THINK.

In the 1970’s Al Ries and Jack Trout popularized the concept of positioning strategy. Since then, they’ve written dozens of spin-off books, including Focus, The Immutable Laws of Marketing, Bottom Up Marketing, and even Re-Positioning.

positioning strategyStill, you could have a roomful of MBA’s and no two would agree on what positioning really means. Many people can’t even decide if the word is an active verb or a proper noun.

Most people think of positioning as a simple step ladder. The cheapest, lowest-end products are “positioned” at the bottom of the ladder, and the best, most expensive products are on the top shelf, if you will.

But positioning has little to do with real price or quality. Instead, it’s all about perception.

Positioning happens in the brain, not in the boardroom.

The whole concept of positioning is based on the simple fact that we form opinions about products and companies based on our own perception. These opinions are influenced by all sorts of things… word of mouth, personal experience, individual prejudices, blogs, the marketing efforts of the brand in question and a hundred other factors.

In our own minds we make some pretty broad — and often rash — assumptions about things. Call it consumer bigotry if you want to. The fact is, we pigeon hole companies and products the same way we pigeon hole political candidates.

As marketers, our goal is to tap into these existing perceptions and use them to our advantage.

Here’s a classic example. Back in1968, before the term positioning was ever invented, the makers of 7-Up scored a huge coup in the soft drink market.

Taste tests and other forms of consumer research revealed that people saw 7-Up as a refreshing alternative to colas. Respondents said it flat out… “it’s a nice change from all the cola I’ve been drinking.”

So the 7-Up executives decided to market the drink as the alternative to cola. It was a no-brainer, really. They simply took the existing perception in the marketplace and turned it into their strategy.

Like all good positioning strategies, 7Up’s was simple and almost painfully obvious. Once the executives at 7-Up knew what consumers were thinking, there was no other way to go.

classic positioning strategyThe creative execution of the strategy, however, was not so obvious. J. Walter Thompson’s simple two-word slogan “The UnCola” said it all. Brilliant! The campaign gave the product a personality, cemented the idea in our collective consciousness, and assured 7Up a place in advertising history.

From a positioning standpoint this strategy worked remarkably well for several reasons. First, it didn’t attempt to change anyone’s perception. It simply leveraged the existing public opinion.

Secondly, it effectively repositioned the competition. Without slamming them, 7-Up lumped Coke, Pepsi and RC all together in a single boring category of colas.

classic positioning strategyFinally, the new strategy made 7Up relevant to the young people who account for a large portion of soft drink sales. The campaign tapped into the prevalent anti-establishment mind set of the late 60’s. It actively encouraged defiance against the cola establishment and portrayed 7-Up as a symbol of dissent. The entire campaign summarized the popular values of the public and catapulted 7-Up into the position as the third leading soft drink in America.

While it is possible to build a positioning strategy around images alone, it’s usually a few simple words like “The Uncola” that solidify things in the consumer’s mind. Because you don’t “position” a product, you communicate its position.

“Just Do It” communicates Nike’s position as the shoe for serious sports. “Pizza Pizza” is a fun way to communicate Little Ceasar’s low-price strategy. “Avis, we try harder” communicated the benefit of being number two in the rental car business.

On the other hand, many automobile companies have struggled with their positioning strategy. Oldsmobile, the now defunct GM brand, is a good example.

automotive marketing positioning strategyIn its last 14 years, Oldsmobile floated no fewer than ten different slogans. Here’s a few of the real gems: “Olds Quality. Feel it.” “Demand Better.” “Look what happens when you demand better.” “Defy Convention.” “It knows the road.”

Ironically, the slogan that’s most memorable is the only one that even hints at the reality of Oldsmobile’s perception with American car buyers. “This is not your father’s Olds” used the old, fuddy-duddy perception of Oldsmobile and spun it in a positive way. Maybe if they’d have stuck with it for more than a year, the brand would still be alive today.

You wonder what kind of research Cadillac executives did that led them to believe they could compete with Honda and Toyota in the small car market. The Cimmeron failed miserably back in the 80’s. Then they’re tried again in the 90’s with Caterra, “The Caddi that zigs.” Nobody believed that!

positioning strategy for CadillacNow they’re trying to compete against BMW, Audi and Mercedez. GM finally got the product right with the CTS, but it’s still a classic case of force-feeding a product into a position in the market. Cadillac as a sports car just does not compute with the American public. It goes against everything Cadillac has ever stood for. The world’s biggest, most luxurious SUV is one thing, but we’ll never buy the concept of a small, sporty Cadillac.

On the same vein, Porsche is off track trying to compete in the SUV market. “The Porsche of SUV’s” has a nice ring to it, but it will never really resonate with the public that sees Porsche as a rich-man’s sports car. What’s next, Chateaubriand at McDonald’s?

There’s an important distinction to be made here between niche marketing and positioning. Cadillac can decide to focus on the luxury sports car niche and can build a car specifically for that purpose. But that does not mean the product will ever be perceived that way in the minds of the consumer. The problem is, Audi and BMW already occupy that space in the consumer’s mind.

Here’s another trap that many companies fall into: They mistake their mission statement for a positioning strategy.

Fortune-500 companies miss the boat all the time on this. There’s a giant health care provider that recently formed an internal committee to study the “position” of the company and draft a “positioning strategy.” What they came up with was a mission statement at best.

But your mission — your statement of purpose — may have nothing to do with your position in the market place. And vice versa.

A mission statement is concocted by a committee and exists in corporate brochures, annual reports, and press releases. A positioning statement is formed in the consumer’s mind. A mission statement is the rose-colored view of your company. A positioning statement is the gritty, 16mm view.

No doubt, the semantics of positioning and positioning strategy can get confusing. But if you want to hedge your bets, think of it this way:

Positioning is not something you do, it’s something that happens. You can choose a narrow market niche, devise a new pricing strategy and launch a giant ad campaign that, together, may affect people’s perception of you. But you can’t technically “position” anything.

Want more classic positioning advice? Read this post.