As General Motors and its US competitors slide closer to oblivion, GM, the leader of the domestic auto-making pack, still fails to understand that survival in the post-advertising age demands that it tell an authentic story with all its words, images and actions.
Begging the taxpayers for survival money, GM is displaying the same inauthentic approach to communicating that has driven its business into the dirt for the past quarter century. If you want to cast yourself as the down-on-your-luck-but-deserving recipient of a government bailout, you don’t fly to D.C. in a $50-million-plus private jet. (Virtually every member of the US Congress and the news media now has pointed this out.) And you don’t get off the plane with no story about what you plan to do with the taxpayers’ money. (Similarly, Ford CEO Alan Mulally, when asked if he would work for $1 a year in exchange for government loans said, “I think I’m okay where I am.” See taxpayer reaction here. It’s brutal.)
But failing to have a believable story has been a GM hallmark for years.
It is GM’s inability to narrate a coherent story that has made it the poster child for the ineffectiveness of traditional advertising*. In the past two decades or so, GM has consistently outspent its rivals on TV and print advertising, always ranking in the top three or four big spenders among all advertisers in the US. It spent $3 billion last year; $3.3 billion the year before. During this time, of course, GM has also consistently bled market share. In the ‘90s, roughly 1 in 3 cars and trucks sold here was a GM vehicle. Today, it’s more like 1 in 5, despite dumping roughly $35 billion into ads over the decade.
Now GM has shifted its bungling from an inability to design, craft and sell cars to an inability to design, craft and sell its own rescue. But this was only to be expected because GM is making the same mistake today that it has made everyday for many years—it can’t tell its own story. It can’t articulate a vision, a mission or a differentiating and meaningful role it intends to play in the lives of its audience.
Whatever else it does, GM should fire its ad agencies and PR staff tomorrow. (First on the list to be canned would be GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson who responded, in part, to the private jet misstep with the following self-serving, self-important crap: “It’s not something where you’d want to stand in line on a commercial flight and risk having your flight canceled… Pretty high stakes when you’re testifying in front of the House and Senate like that.”) Instead, they should hire someone who can tell an authentic story about why anyone should bail out GM and buy its products.
I would suggest, for starters, that Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm is telling a far more engaging and important story for GM than GM ever has told for itself. On CNN this past Sunday, Granholm was telling Wolf Blitzer that the US auto industry’s real story is that they “have to lead this nation to energy independence.”
If that’s true—and I believe it actually is true—then that’s the story GM needs to live and tell in all its words, images and actions.
*A good example of what we are talking about is this new ad:
Stealing liberally (but in a second-rate way) from the 1985 Ridley Scott movie “Legend,” the ad alludes to the fact that people probably believe any high-quality, high-gas-mileage car from GM is a “myth.” But it tells absolutely no credible story that would lead anyone to believe GM this time.
At a moment when GM needs to be compelling and authentic, it is distracting and Hollywood, instead.