Ramblings for July 17, 2000

July 17, 2000

GMC and the brand-management shakeout

There is a shakeout underway among the U.S. car companies, with Eagle and Plymouth already falling by the wayside, and Mercury’s future is in doubt. Yet GM is intent on saving all their brands, and has brought in a whole crop of outside brand specialists to redefine the divisions, but their ‘stealth’ brand seems stuck with a confused image.

GMC is one of GM’s oldest brands, starting as the Grabowsky Motor Corporation and concentrating on heavy trucks until they were phased out of the corporate mix. Jimmy straight sixes were a favorite of early hot rodders before overhead V8s took over, and the blower used by top drag racers was originally a GMC design.

In a stroke of confusing brand management, GMC is discontinuing the name Jimmy, which has a hard-won reputation for toughness.

Over the last quarter century GMC has been partnered with dealerships other than Chevy to provide them with a truck lineup. With the recent buying trends, they should have prospered, but their products have been indistinguishable from Chevrolets. The last two General Managers were among the best, and John Rock created the high performance turbocharged Syclone and Typhoon trucks while supporting some record treks, such as from Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay in less than a month. Roy Roberts wanted to distinguish GMC from Chevy by staking out the high end of the market. He built on top of John Rock’s performance and toughness with luxurious vehicles such as the Denali and a posh limited edition GMC Suburban outfitted with a full complement of Sony electronics and sold through Neiman Marcus. They rolled out a tough and rugged concept called Terradyne that is likely to see production.

Recent decisions confusing

Unfortunately, some of the recent brand decisions have been confusing and counterproductive. After fighting for most of the nineties to get the distinctive Denali upscale SUV into production, Roberts had to share the design with the little changed Escalade when Cadillac decided that they had misjudged the market. Now two of the most fabled model names have been allowed to disappear. The new brand guys want to give the big SUV some separation and dropped Suburban but instead of going for a name like Cascade, Roughneck or even Conquistador (which they used for a GMC-badged El Camino) they chose the overused and bland XL letters. I asked a brand manager why; she went on about the great associations and connotations of ‘XL.’ But when I brought up Hyundai’s unlamented Excel, she blanched.

This week GMC has announced that its all-new 2002 midsize utility will be named Envoy, discontinuing the Jimmy. With the new truck going back to an inline six cylinder engine with state-of-the-art engineering that provides more horsepower than the V-6 it replaces, it’s obvious that the non-car marketeers have no sense of the friendly ‘Jimmy’ nostalgia they are leaving on the table. They have already built great credibility with wins at Baja and Pikes Peak with the new engine, and this would be right in line with their hard won reputation for toughness and power and yet leaves room for elegance. Why can’t they call the country club cruiser Envoy and the down in the dirt version Jimmy and let the public vote? I’ll bet the toothpaste and snack-food-trained experts would be surprised at the winner. As a final thought, now that GM is selling the Hummer, why not let it be the capstone of GMC’s image boost effort? (GMC logo and Terradyne image on disc)

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