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The Future of the GM Brand

Dear Mary,

We haven’t met, but I hope you’re well and that hot seat you’re in right now isn’t too uncomfortable. You’re a smart woman, however, so I suspect you knew what to expect before announcing G.M.’s plans to Idle Plants and Cut Thousands of Jobs. I’m not writing today to comment on the merits of your plan, the implications it has on the U.S. and global economies, or any moral obligations some think you may be shirking. I’m writing today to talk about the future of the GM brand and those under its umbrella.

 

If you haven’t already, and again, you’re a smart woman so you’re probably several steps ahead of me, it’s time to think very long and hard about what brands will emerge from this brave new automotive world you’re creating. This warning is particularly important given the reputational capital you’re expending now to make it.

Going forward, the GM brand should stand for meeting the world’s powered transportation needs, by way of its sub-brands.

Let’s step back a bit. Last year I attended the New England Auto Show. I asked all the manufacturer’s representatives how they describe their brands. Few were able, but to GM’s credit, Chevrolet had a pretty good response. Instead of being just the entry-level car brand from GM, Chevrolet was there for consumers as their needs changed throughout all the phases of their lives. Economical cars for when they’re just starting out, family-friendly ones later on, and finally fun or luxury vehicles once the last college tuition checks had been written.

 

Whereas I think that’s a strong brand message, it is misplaced. That vision is the way you should think about GM as a whole, especially now that you’re taking a moment to rethink what you’re doing across the brands and how. Allow me to offer an example:

 

Going forward, the GM brand should stand for meeting the world’s powered transportation needs, by way of its sub-brands, each of which focuses on a specific manifestation of those needs.

Focusing your brands on their utility alone is not enough. You have to think about the emotional connections each can make.

For all transportation related to commerce, for example, you could make the GMC brand the standard bearer. Its focus should stay exclusively on vehicles that work, namely vans and trucks. Let me be blunt: I love my GMC Terrain (really, I do), but let’s face it. It’s a Chevy Equinox.

 

Next up, we have Cadillac—once the Cadillac of brands! Obviously, this one should stay the luxury GM brand and resist the temptation to make luxury accessible, as with bare-bones, entry-level models. My mother had a bare bones Cadillac CTS and let me tell you, it was a Cadillac in name only. Accessible luxury, perhaps, could be the hallmark of Buick. You would know better, but by now you see the picture I’m trying to paint.

GM has the opportunity to write a new story, one that connects more authentically, deeply, and profitably with customers over the long haul.

A further word of caution: focusing your brands on their utility alone is not enough. You have to think about the emotional connections each can make. GMC should make workers feel powerful and able to take on the world! Cadillac should make drivers feel as if they’re rewarding themselves with each use. And so on and so forth. As referenced with the Terrain/Equinox example, all this slapping of different bodies on the same cars has got to stop. Completely. Unless the overall emotional experience is significantly different from one model to the next, let each of your sub-brands stay true to whom you and your customers want them to be.

 

Thanks for your time, Mary. As you may have surmised, I grew up with GM brand cars and after going elsewhere during your—how shall we say, less impressive years?—I have happily returned. So please know that my point here comes from a place of encouragement, not belittlement. You have an opportunity to write a new story for GM, one that connects more authentically, more deeply, and more profitably with your customers over the long haul. That’s one trek that’s not self-driving.


— Douglas Spencer, President & Chief Brand Strategist

 

Spencer Brenneman, LLC

Copyright 2018

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