Marketplace Scratch Pad

GM’s new, old marketing guy

Scott Jagow Jul 14, 2009

I think it’ll be fascinating to see what GM does under its new head of marketing. There isn’t much “new” about Bob Lutz. He’s worked for all three Detroit automakers over a four-decade career. In a time of viral marketing, Twitter and all that other new media stuff, GM has just hired a 77-year-old to run its campaign.

This is a man who says what he thinks, and he’s already indicated that his attitude will transfer to his marketing plan (from Bloomberg):

“We have to be much bolder, much less risk-averse,” Lutz said. “Very frequently the General Motors way is to sanitize the message to the point where no one is offended. But when no one is offended, there’s no interest in the message anymore.”

Lutz has started off by dumping GM’s sponsorships at racetracks, baseball stadiums, even in Times Square. Instead, GM will spend the money on aggressive advertising elsewhere. From the Detroit News:

“My top priority now is to enhance the ability of GM to let the public know about what great cars and trucks we build,” Lutz wrote in a live Web chat Monday. “For all the money spent in the past, this seemingly simple task has eluded us…”

“You will very quickly see a drastic change in the tone and content of our advertising,” he said.

“And if you don’t, it will mean that I have failed. Our current product lineup is arguably the best of any mass producer in the world, and our task is to use enhanced advertising and communications methods to convince more Americans to give us a try again.”

Here’s one take on Lutz (Bloomberg story):

He will usually come up with a great quote and sometimes it’s to the detriment of Detroit-based GM’s reputation, said Maryann Keller, president of auto consulting firm Maryann Keller & Associates in Stamford, Connecticut.

“Reporters like him a lot, but sometimes because he says things he shouldn’t,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how he fares in that role. I find it odd.”

But Lutz is well-respected, and he does have his fans. Peter DeLorenzo, the Autoextremist blogger, says “underestimate Lutz at your peril”:

Don’t be surprised if he turns the current agency roster upside down and goes looking for new blood, too, because GM needed a new image yesterday, and any time wasted from here on out will be time they just cannot afford to squander.

Lutz is a singular figure in this business and a true renaissance man when it comes to his interests, both personal and professional. He is charismatic, strong-willed, extremely talented, whip-smart and relentless in his passion for this business and in his eagerness to turn GM around.

Lutz has already prompted a little controversy by telling the press that even though Pontiac’s going under, GM will keep the Pontiac G8 and slap the old Chevy Caprice name on it. GM has backed off Lutz’s comments a bit and said that’s one thing the company’s considering.

Some more Lutz candor from a Fox News interview over the weekend. Lutz was describing the future cars of GM (which sound like the old cars of GM)…

GRIFFIN: Let me interrupt for a second and ask you — sorry for the delay, but let me ask you — I am not hearing you talk about any hybrids. Are you under pressure from the government to make these more fuel- efficient? These do not sound like a new fuel-efficient vehicles.

LUTZ: I was afraid that we would get under a lot of pressure from the government, because that’s what everyone was saying. The government is going to make you do nothing but green cars. And my worry initially was if they do that, they are going to make us produce vehicles that the American public does not really want to buy.

Happily, as I got to know the members of the task force, I realized they had one overriding objective only, and that is to make General Motors into a streamlined, successful company.

And they absolutely want us to keep producing Camaros, keep producing Corvettes, keep producing full-size pickup trucks, keep producing sport- utilities, and so forth, provided, and this applies to every other car company, we have to meet the future fuel economy regulations.

So as long as we have the technology in the vehicles that meet the fuel economy regulations, the U.S. government absolutely wants us to keep her fulfilling the needs and desired of the American public because they realize this is the only way we are going to be successful, and it’s the only way the taxpayer is going to get her money back.

About 18 months ago, Lutz was quoted as saying:

Hybrid cars like those made by Toyota “make no economic sense,” because their price will never come down, and diesel autos like those touted by Chrysler are also uneconomic. The only place in Europe that diesel-driven cars are big, he said, is where diesel fuel is half the cost of regular gasoline; in most places there, the costs are comparable and diesel has little market penetration.

Global warming is a “total crock of ****.” Then he added: “I’m a skeptic, not a denier. Having said that, my opinion doesn’t matter. (With the battery-driven Volt), “I’m motivated more by the desire to replace imported oil than by the CO2 (argument).”

Like I said, it’ll be fascinating to see what Lutz does. One piece of advice for him:

Marketing the remaining brands using traditional messages won’t work for Lutz, said John Grace, president of consulting firm BrandTaxi in Greenwich, Connecticut.

“The minute that I see an ad with a car driving around the bend in a mountain with someone saying ‘There’s nothing like a Chevy’ I am going to throw up,” Grace said. “From a positioning standpoint, honesty works. They’d sell a lot of cars if they just said: ‘It’s cheap, but it’s good.'”

It doesn’t look like GM or the taxpayers have to worry about Lutz pulling any punches.

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