GM Opens 'Test Drive Studios' For Chevy Equinox, Malibu, Traverse

March 12, 2010
2010 Chevrolet Malibu

2010 Chevrolet Malibu

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2010 Chevrolet Traverse

2010 Chevrolet Traverse

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On the sales and marketing fronts, every automaker worth its salt is focusing lots of attention on social media. But in addition to those high-tech tools, General Motors is also going back to basics in the showroom, taking a good, long look at the way in which salespeople interact with customers. The results could be very interesting, indeed.

About ten years ago, Steve Tihanyi -- who's now GM's general director for marketing services, alliances, and branded entertainment -- came up with the idea for something called a "Test Drive Studio". Tihanyi conceived of the Studio as a non-threatening environment, where potential customers could check out GM cars right alongside similar models from other automakers. Shoppers would be able to hang out, drink a little coffee, check their email, and, if they wanted, test drive any of those vehicles. Most importantly, customers could do that without having high-pressure salespeople hover in the background.

It looks as if Tihanyi's dream may finally have come true. General Motors is preparing to open four Test Drive Studios, which will feature "heart of the market" products from the Chevrolet line: the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox, Malibu, and Traverse. Alongside those models, customers will find comparable models from other automakers, like the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, and Toyota Camry. Studio visitors will be able to check out all those vehicles and take multiple test drives to see how the Chevrolets stack up.

The four Studios will be located in key U.S. markets for Chevy -- Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia -- with the possibility of expanding to other cities down the line. Perhaps most importantly, the Studios will not be covered in Chevy paraphernalia. Says Tihanyi: "Ultimately, we want it to be customer friendly; we want them to feel good about being there. The last thing we want is people hovering over you. It will not look like a dealership and will not be branded Chevrolet."

We freely admit: we love this idea. While other automakers seems focused exclusively on beefing up their list of Twitter followers, GM's reexamination of something as basic as face-to-face interaction seems truly groundbreaking and outside-the-box.

Philosophically speaking, the Test Drive Studio is in keeping with GM's Vehicle Plant Tour we mentioned last week, which gives GM workers the chance to learn more about -- and be proud of -- the vehicles their company produces. Both are hands-on strategies to win GM fans, one by one. Sure, marketers can communicate faster through email and Facebook, but using these Studios to create a comfortable environment for customers could pay off huge dividends for GM down the line.

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