GM “Sleeps On It” To Improve Image

by James Amend

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General Motors Corp. has an image problem and according to one of its top marketing executives, the world’s number-one automaker is out to change that one consumer at a time.

According to the firm CMR/TNS Media Intelligence, GM led all U.S. advertisers in 2002, spending more than $2 billion telling folks about their cars and trucks. Now with programs like its overnight test drives and an old-fashioned road show, it wants to prove to people that those products are not from the GM of old.

“We can talk all we want about it, but unless you get somebody in a new GM vehicle they may be stuck with that opinion of General Motors’ vehicles of 15 or 20 years ago,” said CJ Fraleigh, executive director of advertising and marketing at GM.

“Our products are significantly better. They are high quality, they look great, they perform great… We’re going tell them we’re different and we’re going to get as many people as we can into our great products,” Fraleigh told the Automotive Press Association in Detroit yesterday.

Long perceived by consumers as the Frankenstein of the industry, GM is by many accounts no longer a lumbering giant with stale designs and suspect quality.

Polarizing as they might be, designs at brands like Cadillac and Hummer declare dramatic change. Pontiac has finally shed its garish plastic cladding in favor of a cleaner look, and even dowdy Buick is proclaiming that a new emphasis on styling is underway.

And last year, GM topped all domestic automakers in J.D. Power and Associates’ closely-watched Initial Quality Study — it held that spot again this year — and the widely-read Consumer Reports ranks a number of GM vehicles as “recommended buys.”

Meanwhile, GM executives like Bob Lutz and Gary Cowger never pass up an opportunity to boast about how some vehicle program cycles — the time it takes for a car or truck to move from initial concept to production — are as little as 18 months.

Unfortunately, the average Joe doesn’t seem to be listening and GM’s own research bears that out. A study recently presented by GM shows that the top reason consumers don’t consider a GM vehicle are concerns about reliability and quality of workmanship. With the exception of trucks, consumer perception of quality at every division is dramatically lowered than actual quality, the research indicates.

“They do have a bad rep out there,” said Dr. Michael Bernacchi, a business professor who closely tracks GM marketing initiatives from the University of Detroit-Mercy.

“They’ve done a lot with their brands, but the name GM just doesn’t have a lot behind it,” he said.

So this month GM began a 90-day program where it’s letting qualified customers take vehicles home for the night.

The automaker is also cranking up its “Mobile Auto Show,” a previously sporadic test drive program where non-GM owners are invited to test cars and trucks on the track against direct competitors.

The two-day event visited Orlando last week and sets up shop in New York next week. Plans are to barnstorm 20 major cities over the next twelve months, Fraleigh said.

It’s the overnight test-drive program, however, that has drawn the most publicity. GM has set aside about 30,000 vehicles for the program — “that’s not a small step, that’s a bold initiative,” Fraleigh noted — but it’s too early to quantify the impact of the 14-day-old program.

“It’s a little early, but we’ve been getting a lot of hits at our Web site and we’ve been getting a lot of anecdotal information from our dealers,” he said.

Fraleigh said GM gets about 10,000 hits on “heavy Internet traffic days,” and that overall the automaker is “happy with initial returns.”

Dealer reaction seems mixed.

At Boston’s Olsen Cadillac — New England’s number-one Cadillac dealer — salesman Vito Fulciniti said they’ve received “limited requests so far.”

A Chevy dealer in suburban Chicago, who requested anonymity, said an intensely competitive environment has had his franchise giving out overnight test drives for years. Another Chicago Chevy dealer chose not to join the program.

Bernacchi thinks that in the end, GM might be happier with the clarity of the message than the actual number of test drives.

“GM has always had trouble connecting and attaching personally with those people who are not loyal GM buyers,” Bernacchi said. “This notion gets people discussing GM. It’s a great way to get some publicity and say, ‘We’re doing all this for you.’

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