Monday, July 27, 2009
Once the crown jewel of the General Motors Corp. (GM), the Oldsmobile division had fallen on hard times. As a result, GM went so far as to contemplate terminating the venerable Oldsmobile nameplate, but it opted to reinvent the division instead. Beginning in 1994 Oldsmobile introduced new cars designed to appeal to younger consumers and help win back sales from competitors. Moreover, GM designated Oldsmobile as its import-fighting wing. To this end Oldsmobile created the Alero, a compact car designed to take on such best-sellers as Honda Motor Co.’s Accord and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Camry. With a planned launch date of September 1, 1998, Oldsmobile turned to its longtime ad agency, the Leo Burnett Company, to create a campaign that would generate excitement about the Alero. For this $80 million kickoff campaign, Oldsmobile adopted the tagline ‘‘Start Something.’’ The commercials were unlike anything Oldsmobile had ever done before. In both the 15-second teaser commercials (which debuted August 3, 1998) and the 30-second commercials (which began on September 1), quick-cutting images were set to a pulsing electronic sound track, scenes of screaming teenagers were interspersed with shots of the Alero, and red ovals spelled out such commands as ‘‘Start to Scream’’ and ‘‘Stop Commuting. Start Driving.’’ Every spot closed with the ‘‘Start Something’’ moniker. Leo Burnett also created print pieces and savvy Internet ads. The Alero and its supporting marketing campaign were deemed a success by General Motors executives as well as industry insiders. The campaign also managed to reach its target audience of younger consumers. GM predicted that 1999 sales of the Alero would reach or surpass 100,000 vehicles. Based on its success, the campaign was continued in 1999 and expanded to include the entire Oldsmobile line of vehicles. Early in 2000 the tagline ‘‘Start Something’’ was modified depending on which vehicle was being promoted in the specific spot. The initial success of the Alero was brief, however, and by the end of 2000 Oldsmobile sales were again on the decline. In December 2000 GM announced that it was ceasing production of Oldsmobiles.
Oldsmobile had once been perceived as a ‘‘status’’ car, a high-powered American car for the stylish executive with a family, said an article in the July 15, 1991, Adweek. Between 1983 and 1986 the division sold more than one million cars per year. In 1987, however, Oldsmobile’s fortunes waned. GM’s policy of ‘‘badge engineering’’ resulted in Oldsmobile’s vehicles becoming indistinguishable from other GM lines, diluting the brand’s cachet. In addition, the company was slow to introduce new products that kept up with consumers’ tastes. Although Oldsmobile’s 1988 campaign, ‘‘This Is Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile! This Is a New Generation of Olds,’’ was lauded by ad critics and popular with consumers, it did little to bolster the brand’s sinking sales. By 1996 Oldsmobile’s share of the U.S. car market had reached an all-time low of 2.2 percent (down from its 1995 share of 2.6 percent). Its 1996 sales were 14.5 percent lower than in 1995. According to Fortune magazine, Oldsmobile’s loyal customers were aging and had either ‘‘died or defected to Buick.’’
The division took stock of its situation in the mid-1990s and committed itself to revamping its entire product line. In 1994 Oldsmobile debuted the Aurora, which served as ‘‘the centerpiece of [the company’s] strategy to boost sagging sales by attracting buyers younger than its traditional sixty-something crowd,’’ noted USA Today. The redesigned Bravada sport-utility vehicle (model year 1996), the Silhouette and Cutlass (1997), and the Intrigue (1997) followed. So adamant was Oldsmobile to reach younger drivers that in 1997 it teamed up with The X-Files, a show that had a cultlike following among Generation Xers, for a major promotion. Nevertheless, Oldsmobile had no entry-level car that could draw consumers into the Oldsmobile line, so as the entire Oldsmobile line struggled to shed its geriatric image, Alero was pegged as the division’s entry-level vehicle.
Priced between $17,500 and $22,000, the Alero was designated as the entry-level vehicle of the Oldsmobile line. The division intended it to be a high-volume car and set a prelaunch goal for Alero of eventually accounting for 40 percent of Oldsmobile’s sales. ‘‘Start Something’’ was grounded in the premise that the bulk of the consumers who would ultimately drive these sales would be those between the ages of 30 and 50. Within this broad demographic group, Oldsmobile focused on ‘‘well-educated singles or young families with children,’’ according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The division’s lingering reputation for ‘‘fogey-mobiles’’ made this a challenging audience to win over. Nevertheless, it was an important segment for Oldsmobile to capture. The grail for all car companies was to have consumers ‘‘grow’’ within a line of cars—to start with low-end vehicles and progress to ever-more expensive cars as they became older and wealthier. Market research had shown that brand allegiances were often formed early and tended to be long lasting. If Oldsmobile were to survive, it had to introduce consumers to its line.
To indicate that the Alero represented a new direction for Oldsmobile, Leo Burnett crafted a campaign that was meant to stand out from the array of other car commercials and seize viewers’ attention for itself. ‘‘At first glance, it doesn’t look like car advertising—it’s not supposed to,’’ the division explained in an August 26, 1998, press release. To add to the aura of uniqueness, Oldsmobile opted not to use actors in the commercials. ‘‘These are real people with real lives and passions. They closely reflect the attitude and character of the Alero,’’ said Mike Sands, Oldsmobile’s director of advertising. Moreover, the commercials had a high-energy, youthful feeling. Images of children, teens at a concert, a martial artist, and a man jumping off a mountain into the snow were the core of the spots. The sound track was modern and pulsing, and the quick-cutting cinematography resembled a music video more than a standard car commercial. ‘‘We want people who are willing to try something new,’’ Sands told Automotive News. But Oldsmobile was careful not to position itself too far outside the mainstream. The company wanted women to account for 50 percent of its sales, and conventional wisdom held that this demographic responded well to family-oriented messages. As a result, the division included upbeat domestic scenes in many of its ads. ‘‘The spots are trying to communicate a certain way of thinking and living,’’ a Leo Burnett spokesperson told Adweek. ‘‘[The campaign] speaks to a consumer set that is very new to Oldsmobile.’’
Oldsmobile pitched the Alero not only to younger drivers but also to minority groups, most notably Hispanics and African-Americans. The U.S. Census predicted that Hispanics would account for 42 percent of America’s population growth between 1998 and 2008, while only 2.3 percent of Oldsmobile’s 1997 sales had come from Hispanics. African-Americans were also underrepresented among Oldsmobile consumers. ‘‘There is a huge potential for the Alero to gain Hispanic and African-American customers who had never before considered buying an Oldsmobile,’’ Oldsmobile’s brand manager Bob Clark explained to Automotive News in September 1998. In its bid to pitch Alero to Hispanic and African-American consumers, Oldsmobile created separate ads that targeted these distinct communities. For instance, Alero’s Hispanic-oriented advertising used the tagline ‘‘Vivelo,’’ which meant ‘‘To Live,’’ because ‘‘Start Something’’ translated poorly.
As GM’s ‘‘import-fighting’’ line, Oldsmobile wanted the Alero to compete against comparable compact sedans by the established import players—the Honda Accord, the Toyota Camry, the Nissan Altima, and the Mazda 626. Alero’s task was a difficult one because it involved ‘‘mak[ing] conquest sales in a shrinking market segment,’’ according to Automotive News. Sales in the lower midrange segment that Alero sought to enter had seen shrinking sales, as increasing numbers of consumers bought sport-utility vehicles and other light trucks instead of cars. It was a highly competitive market, and Alero’s rivals conducted savvy campaigns designed to keep their share of the market. Claiming converts would be a challenge. Foremost among the Alero’s rivals was the Toyota Camry, which was the best-selling car in the United States in both 1997 and 1998. Since fall 1997 Toyota’s ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, had advertised the Camry as part of the company’s overall branding campaign: ‘‘Everyday People.’’ The Camry figured prominently in these print and television spots that showed the versatility and practicality of Toyota. Toyota’s overall share of the U.S. market grew from 8.1 percent in 1997 to 8.7 percent in 1998. The Honda Accord was the second-best-selling car in the United States in 1997 and 1998. For model year 1998 Honda had launched a completely redesigned Accord. Spots by Rubin Postaer & Associates used the tagline ‘‘An Accord Like No Other’’ to tout the Accord’s roomier interior, performance, and quiet engine. This $100 million campaign ‘‘was almost paying homage to the Accord over the past 22 years,’’ a Honda spokesperson told Advertising Age. In October 1998 Honda switched strategies with two new national Accord commercials (also by Rubin Postaer) that did not use ‘‘An Accord Like No Other.’’ Instead the spots presented the Accord not just ‘‘as a car you need,’’ but more as ‘‘a car you want,’’ a Honda representative explained in the October 5, 1998, issue of Advertising Age. In one a frazzled woman left an airport, and, by using her remote-control key, was able to freeze all action around her until she reached her Accord. The tagline proclaimed, ‘‘It’s not just a car. It’s a state of mind.’’ Honda’s overall share of the U.S. car market rose from 6.2 percent in 1997 to 6.5 percent in 1998.
Oldsmobile also viewed the Mazda 626 and the Nissan Altima as direct competitors of the Alero. Since spring 1998 Mazda, which controlled a 1.5 percent share of the U.S. car market, had used the slogan ‘‘Get In. Be Moved.’’ in advertising for all its offerings. As part of this campaign, Mazda’s ad agency, W.B. Doner & Co., created a commercial for the 626 that sought to build a more energetic and sophisticated image for the car. Set to David Bowie’s song ‘‘Rebel Rebel,’’ the commercial portrayed an attractive woman driving across town in her 626. She stopped at a sign announcing a PTA meeting and walked inside carrying a cake. ‘‘Do not go gentle into that good PTA meeting,’’ the voice-over intoned, in a spoof on Dylan Thomas’s famous poem, ‘‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.’’ Mazda ran a similar commercial for the 626 in May 1999. Nissan, whose share of the U.S. car market was an impressive 4.0 percent, pulled the plug on its ‘‘Enjoy the Ride’’ branding campaign in 1998 and initiated more product-specific spots that failed to have their desired effect. The company consequently inaugurated a new branding campaign in 1999 with the tagline ‘‘Driven.’’
‘‘Start Something’’ was designed to generate excitement for the launch of the Oldsmobile Alero. Just as the component advertisements strove to convey the car’s fun-to-drive and distinct image, Oldsmobile’s marketing efforts attempted to make the Alero’s introduction highly visible to the car’s target audience. ‘‘We really need to establish this vehicle with a big splash,’’ Oldsmobile’s Sand was quoted in the August 17, 1998, Adweek. The teaser commercials were an essential component of this plan. Even before the Alero had arrived at dealers, these 15-second spots ‘‘offer[ed] more of a sneak preview than a full disclosure of what l[ay] ahead,’’ Oldsmobile explained in a press release. By the time the full 30-second spots aired on September 1, Oldsmobile had piqued viewers’ curiosity. Print ads ran in major monthly magazines and newsweeklies after September 1. Oldsmobile employed atypical media strategies to ensure that the Alero received a considerable amount of attention. The Internet figured prominently in the ‘‘Start Something’’ campaign. According to Brandweek, the Internet was the ‘‘centerpiece of its media blitz.’’ In addition to scores of banner ads displayed on popular websites, Oldsmobile even offered test drives at home for consumers who signed up online. Incorporating the Internet into its marketing venues was a logical choice for Oldsmobile. ‘‘We think the Internet is used by very youthful, very technologically savvy consumers who are similar to the consumer profile that we want to attract with the Alero,’’ Sands told Automotive News. To raise the Alero’s profile further, Oldsmobile announced its ‘‘Start Something Tuesdays on ABC Sweepstakes’’ in August 1998. This promotional tie-in with ABC’s Tuesday evening prime-time lineup encouraged viewers to enter a sweepstakes in which 200 Aleros would be awarded.
Because Oldsmobile included Hispanic and African-American consumers in its target audience, the division used slightly different methods to reach these groups. For instance, Alero advertisements bearing the ‘‘Vivelo’’ tagline appeared in national Hispanic magazines and on Spanish-speaking networks. Oldsmobile concentrated its Hispanic-oriented efforts on large cities such as Los Angeles and Miami, as well as in regions with substantial Hispanic populations, such as Texas and the Southwest. GM declared October 13, 1998, to be ‘‘GM Hispanic Awareness Day.’’ At the company’s Miami symposium that day, a GM executive said, ‘‘I think the Alero speaks volumes about our commitment to, and expansion into, the Hispanic community.’’
In 1999 GM expanded the ‘‘Start Something’’ campaign to encompass all of its Oldsmobile vehicles in what company executives described in Advertising Age as a ‘‘divisional branding campaign,’’ or ‘‘divisional effort.’’ Karen Francis, Oldsmobile’s general marketing manager, told Advertising Age that in 1999 Alero’s marketing tagline, ‘‘Start Something,’’ was being moved to all Oldsmobile vehicle models and that the expanded campaign would kick off with television spots during the 1999 Super Bowl. A new campaign to support the introduction of the Oldsmobile Aurora sedan began in April 2000; it featured the ‘‘Start Something’’ theme, but with a subtle twist. Francis explained to Advertising Age that each vehicle in the Oldsmobile line would have a different word after ‘‘Start.’’ For the Aurora the tagline was ‘‘Start Obsessing,’’ and the Alero’s modified tagline was ‘‘Start Connecting.’’ The strategy took a different spin in late 2000 when GM announced that the redesigned Bravada sport-utility vehicle would be the last vehicle released under the Oldsmobile brand. Leo Burnett created just one 30-second TV spot supporting Bravada’s launch; it was scheduled to appear on syndicated cable for three weeks followed by a run during the ‘‘March Madness’’ basketball coverage. The spot featured a Bravada racing down a road with a herd of wild horses running alongside it. A voice-over stated, ‘‘A new beast on the road.’’
Both GM officials and industry analysts heralded the Alero’s launch as a success. Although GM’s overall 1998 performance was sluggish, the Wall Street Journal called the Oldsmobile division GM’s ‘‘one bright spot’’ and stressed the importance of the Alero to Oldsmobile’s positive results. Sands informed the January 11, 1999, Adweek that the Alero campaign was the first Oldsmobile effort that had ‘‘truly resonated’’ with this younger target audience. ‘‘It was like a light bulb went off in [consumer’s heads] that Oldsmobile had changed,’’ he exclaimed. An Oldsmobile dealer further emphasized the division’s turnaround to Automotive News on February 15, 1999:
‘‘We’re attracting non-Oldsmobile owners into the showrooms to buy Oldsmobiles.’’ The company predicted 1999 sales of the Alero to exceed 100,000. The Alero’s debut was made all the more impressive by the challenges it overcame. In June 1998 a labor dispute led to strikes at major GM production facilities, which delayed the Alero’s initial release. Some dealers and analysts therefore predicted a tepid reception for the car. ‘‘We’ve got a lot of advertising support and market interest generated and now people come in the door and there’s nothing to show them,’’ one dealer complained to the Capital Times. But these fears proved to be overblown.
Following a brief rise on the crest of the ‘‘Start Something’’ campaign, in December 2000 Oldsmobile sales took a disappointing nosedive. GM executives soon announced that the entire Oldsmobile line would be phased out. The launch of the redesigned Bravada sport-utility vehicle in 2001 would be the brand’s swan song. According to an Advertising Age report, Oldsmobile’s plans for a 2001 first-quarter divisional branding campaign were canceled. ‘‘Obviously, we’re not into brand building, we’re into brand selling,’’ a GM spokesman said. Further, amidst complaints from Oldsmobile dealers that the advertising failed to clarify fully the brand’s new positioning, the unit’s general manager Karen Francis and advertising director Mike Sands both resigned, and Oldsmobile conducted an agency review. Included in the review were incumbent Leo Burnett; McCann-Erickson Worldwide, which was the agency for the Buick line; and E. Morris Communications, the agency handling Oldsmobile’s African-American advertising. Following the review Leo Burnett retained the account and created the final advertising for Oldsmobile. In 2004 the last new Oldsmobile rolled off the assembly line.
In the early 2000s General Motors Corporation (GM) found itself the victim of its own success. Improved quality in its vehicles had resulted in less warranty work for the service centers of GM dealerships, which very much depended on the revenues. All of GM’s 7,400 dealers were brought under the Goodwrench program (a national chain of GM dealer repair shops), and the ad agency chemistri (later called Leo Burnett Detroit) was given the task of building up the brand to attract more nonwarranty work to the service centers. The marketers decided to revive the Mr. Goodwrench character, not seen in GM ads for almost a generation but still alive as a cultural icon. The result was the ‘‘Looking for Mr. Goodwrench’’ campaign.
Rather than portray Mr. Goodwrench as an actual person, as was done from 1975 to 1985, chemistri revisited the concept by creating an oblivious reporter character, played by comedian Stephen Colbert, known for a similar role on Comedy Central’s program The Daily Show. He set off on a never-ending quest to find the one and only Mr. Goodwrench, never quite able to comprehend that every one of GM’s 80,000 technicians was, in essence, Mr. Goodwrench. In addition to 30-second TV spots, the campaign consisted of radio spots and print ads, supplemented by an updated website.
In the first year GM spent $50 million on the ‘‘Looking for Mr. Goodwrench’’ campaign, which began in March 2003 and succeeded in elevating the Goodwrench brand in the minds of consumers. Colbert’s rising stardom also helped the campaign, and he was retained for a second set of TV spots, launched in October 2004, and for a third in 2005.
To promote its network of dealership service centers, in 1975 GM’s Service and Parts Operations (SPO) introduced Mr. Goodwrench, the everyman of General Motors technicians, along with the slogan ‘‘Keep that great GM feeling with genuine GM parts.’’ The character remained the focal point of GM SPO ads for a decade. In the ensuing years, however, GM SPO received fewer advertising dollars and produced no memorable campaigns. In the meantime the quality of General Motors cars improved, resulting in a significant erosion in income for the shops, which concentrated on performing warranty work. In 2002, for example, GM cars had 130 problems per 100 vehicles, an 11 percent improvement over the prior year, placing the company third in quality behind Toyota and Honda. Because their cars had fewer problems, GM consumers also became lax about taking them in for scheduled maintenance and repairs, adding further to the loss of business at GM repair shops. It was estimated that dealers performed 15 to 20 percent less warranty work in 2002 than in 2001. GM dealers became concerned that the loss of warranty work would reduce the amount of money they could invest in mechanics’ training and service facilities and that this would produce a downward spiral of diminished service quality, poor reputation, and further erosion of sales. The obvious way to offset the loss of warranty repairs was to boost nonwarranty business. To do this GM decided to beef up its Goodwrench program, in which only about half of the GM dealerships were participating. Starting in January 2003 all of the dealers were required to participate in the program. As a result Goodwrench became the largest automotive service network in the United States and had more financial resources at its disposal. For advertising GM turned to chemistri, an agency based in Troy, Michigan. Chemistri was heir to D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, whose connection to GM dated to 1915, when the agency fashioned ads for Cadillac. In 2002 D’Arcy’s parent company, Bcom3, was acquired by Publicis Groupe SA and disbanded. D’Arcy’s Detroit operation was kept and renamed chemistri, its purpose to focus exclusively on GM clients.
The target market for the ‘‘Looking for Mr. Goodwrench’’ campaign consisted of both male and female owners of GM vehicles whose ages ranged from 24 to 54. A GM spokesperson quoted by Alice Z. Cuneo in Advertising Age described the coveted demographic as ‘‘Starbucks suburbanites.’’ It was with this type of person in mind that the marketers made their decision about who would represent the brand in the new campaign.
As Goodwrench service centers attempted to expand beyond warranty work, they began competing against a multitude of local mom-and-pop shops. On the national scene Goodwrench had to contend with Ford’s Quality Care service centers, which were in much the same plight, looking to drum up repair work to make up for the loss of business that had resulted from improved vehicle quality. Quality Care was spending about $40 million a year on advertising, as was another national player, Midas Muffler Company, which had been hurt by the introduction of longer-lasting mufflers in the 1990s. Midas was attempting to reposition itself as a general car maintenance center instead of just a muffler shop, and it had the benefit of a well-recognized brand to aid in the effort.
Goodwrench also faced regional competition from smaller muffler shops, such as Meineke Discount Mufflers, which had changed the name of its 900 shops in Canada and the United States to Meineke Car Care Center. Although it lacked the budgets of other companies, Meineke had the advantage of a celebrity pitchman, boxer George Foreman. Another muffler chain stepping into the fray was the 600-unit Monro Muffler and Brake. Moreover, the repair field was crowded with competitors of a different type: auto parts retailers—such as Pep Boys and the northeastern chain Strauss Discount Auto—who were opening supercenters to install the parts they sold.
Given the crowded auto repair field and the difficulty of standing out, GM was committed to spending at least as much as Ford and Midas on advertising. ‘‘We want to get this program launched at industry-leading levels,’’ Jon Brancheau, director of brand marketing for GM SPO, told Automotive News’s Dave Guilford.
As the new Goodwrench campaign was being developed, GM requested that chemistri expand its marketing approach beyond creating TV spots. The agency was asked to think in terms of wider marketing plans and to bring in partner agencies with expertise in direct mail, interactive advertising, diversity affairs, and other areas. In crafting the ‘‘Looking for Mr. Goodwrench’’ campaign, chemistri received significant input from GM’s Dealer Fixed Operations Advisory Board. The agency also got marketing advice from the Optimization Group, a Detroit consulting firm, and hired Six Degrees, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, to provide research assistance. In an interview with Guilford for Automotive News Brancheau said that the decision to bring back the Mr. Goodwrench character, even though he would be nothing more than a phantom, was a ‘‘no-brainer.’’ Research showed that, despite an 18-year absence, Mr. Goodwrench remained firmly entrenched in the mind of consumers. The marketers elected to use humor, but because it was important to portray the technicians as skilled professionals, they had to walk a fine line. The challenge, therefore, was to find a way to relay serious information—such as the fact that dealer technicians used the latest in diagnostic tools and had received more then one million hours of combined training in the previous year—and still be funny. Humor also helped to address another potential pitfall: focusing too much on the need for service, which might carry the implication that GM products were not trustworthy. Moreover, humor helped spice up what was a less-than-exciting subject for consumers. Marketing director Beth Grotz told Theresa Howard of USA Today, ‘‘Your typical automotive service ad is a technician or service manager pleading with you to come in. We thought we’d take a little different approach to see if we could get more interest in the category.’’ To serve as the focal point of the new Goodwrench campaign, GM elected to hire a comedian and settled on Stephen Colbert, a reporter on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, a satire of an evening news program. Colbert’s deadpan delivery and well-honed dimwit persona made him an ideal choice to play the role of a reporter searching to find the one and only Mr. Goodwrench. While many people may not have recognized Colbert at the time, he was well known by the target market.
The ‘‘Looking for Mr. Goodwrench’’ campaign was multifaceted. In addition to TV spots, it included radio, print, and Internet elements. Print ads appeared in such magazines as People, Newsweek, Time, Sports Illustrated, Better Homes and Gardens, and Ebony. All ads mentioned theGoodwrench website,where consumers could find additional information and locate their nearest service center. The focus of the campaign was four 30-second television spots, which aired during both network and cable programs. In addition, chemistri created five spots that dealers could air on their own, and GM established 30 local marketing groups to fund local advertising. The national ads first appeared in March 2003, in time to be shown during telecasts of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. They were also shown during other sporting events, including NASCAR races, a major venue for promoting anything automotive. Moreover, GM Goodwrench sponsored a race car, which would be featured in one of the TV spots.
All four of the first wave of ads in the ‘‘Looking for Mr. Goodwrench’’ campaign featured Colbert’s clueless reporter attempting to uncover the identity of the man called Goodwrench. The spot called ‘‘Service Bay’’ showed Colbert in a safari vest that would become the character’s trademark. He interviewed three GM service technicians, asking, ‘‘Mr. Goodwrench—who is this one and only GM expert?’’ They all claimed to be Mr. Goodwrench, confusing Colbert, who resorted to a bullhorn to ask the real Mr. Goodwrench to please step forward. The spot closed with the line ‘‘Find Mr. Goodwrench at over 7,000 GM dealerships nationwide.’’ A second spot, ‘‘Mitre Saw,’’ was broken into two parts. First, when told that Mr. Goodwrench had more than one million hours of training, the disbelieving reporter quipped, ‘‘Doesn’t leave much time for Mrs. Goodwrench now, does it?’’ Colbert then asked a technician what kind of tool Mr. Goodwrench would be if he were a tool. When the bemused technician answered, ‘‘Wrench,’’ Colbert was quick to reply, ‘‘No, the correct answer is mitre saw.’’
The final two spots in the initial ‘‘Looking for Mr. Goodwrench’’ campaign took Colbert out of the service center. In ‘‘NASCAR Garage’’ he visited with the driver of the GM Goodwrench-sponsored race car, Kevin Harvick. Colbert was again skeptical when Harvick confirmed that Mr. Goodwrench knew GM cars better than he did and could be found both at the track and at GM dealerships. The spot closed with Harvick expelling Colbert from his race car, where Colbert was pretending to be a driver. In the last spot, ‘‘On the Street,’’ Colbert approached people to question them about Mr. Goodwrench, capping off the interviews by outlandishly asking whether he did root canals as well as service work on GM vehicles.
There was no doubt that Colbert’s work on the TV and radio spots was the cornerstone of the success of the ‘‘Looking for Mr. Goodwrench’’ campaign. When the ratings of The Daily Show improved dramatically during the U.S. presidential campaign of 2004, Colbert’s visibility grew. The show’s ‘‘Indecision 2004’’ coverage was especially popular with a younger demographic, part of which admitted to getting most, if not all, of their real news from the fake news show. GM’s Goodwrench service centers enjoyed Colbert’s reflected popularity. GM even became a sponsor of The Daily Show’s website. Market research indicated that, after the launch of the campaign, GM experienced significant gains in unaided brand awareness, ad awareness, and brand consideration. In October 2004, in an attempt to build on the momentum created over the previous year, GM began airing two new spots in the ‘‘Looking for Mr. Goodwrench’’ campaign. Colbert was again featured, this time joined by a sidekick, comedian Brian Posehn. Together they traveled in a tiny three-wheeled truck with ‘‘Looking for Mr. Goodwrench’’ emblazoned on the side. In the spot titled ‘‘Stakeout’’ they tried using high-tech equipment in a dealership parking lot to find Mr. Goodwrench. In the second spot, ‘‘APB,’’ Colbert asked a mounted police officer to put out an all points bulletin (APB) for Mr. Goodwrench, noting that Mr. Goodwrench claimed to spend more than a million hours a year training. ‘‘Do you know what that means?’’ he asked. ‘‘Expertise?’’ suggested the officer. ‘‘Two words,’’ replied Colbert, then offered three: ‘‘Labor law infraction.’’
Three new ‘‘Looking for Mr. Goodwrench’’ ads appeared in the summer of 2005. While the little truck made an appearance when Colbert challenged Harvick to a race, Posehn did not. Instead, Colbert was solo once again, questioning technicians and customers alike in his ongoing search for Mr. Goodwrench, a concept that continued to provide the copywriters with enough humorous situations to exploit Colbert’s talent and promote the Goodwrench brand.
GM was extremely pleased with the ‘‘Looking for Mr. Goodwrench’’ ads. As Grotz told the online resource the Auto Channel, ‘‘GM has broken away from the pack . . . Most vehicle service ads feature a technician holding a part in his or her hand, but we moved away from the typical spot and connected with consumers through unique settings in addition to the dealership environment, and through humor.’’ The campaign was recognized by the advertising industry, winning a Bronze EFFIE Award (Automotive Aftermarket Products and Services category) in 2005. Meanwhile, Colbert’s high profile, both in films and on Comedy Central, added luster to the ongoing campaign.
When General Motors Corporation (GM) acquired the commercial marketing rights to the Hummer truck, the civilian version of the U.S. Army’s Humvee, it faced the challenge of promoting a vehicle that was never intended to be sold in high numbers. Part of the solution was to design smaller, less-expensive versions, the H2 and H3, but much of the success would have to depend on the marketing. Rather than turning to a roster of ad agencies it usually worked with, GM hired a young Boston creative boutique, Modernista!, in 2000. The initial goal of the $35 million campaign, begun in August 2001, was to establish Hummer as a luxury brand. Thus, images ofmud-splatteredHummers that played up the vehicle’s off-road capabilities were scrapped in favor of shots that made it seem jewel-like. Once the brand was repositioned, the marketers’ goal was to pitch the lower-priced H2 and H3 to a wider market, hopefully to more women. Factors such as rising gas prices and the perception that the Hummer was oversized for most consumers proved to be major hurdles for the marketers. However, by the end of 2003 the campaign had succeeded in redefining the Hummer brand, and with the introduction of the H3 in 2005, the marketers took on a new challenge: selling the Hummer to a mass market.
The Humvee was designed for the U.S. Army in 1979 by AM General Corp., based in South Bend, Indiana. The 3.5-ton vehicle became a star of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, spurring consumer demand for a civilian version, which was introduced in 1992 as the Hummer. It catered to an exclusive market, as demonstrated by the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the first buyers. The vehicle never received much advertising support; AM General spent less than $1 million on marketing the Hummer in 1999, when it sold about 700 of the trucks. Nevertheless, AM General did enough business to attract the attention of General Motors, and in the end bought the Hummer brand in late 1999.
GM signed a seven-year contract with AM General to produce the next generation, GM-designed version, the Hummer H2 sport-utility vehicle (SUV). The agency Modernista! was hired to promote the brand. Prior marketing efforts had played up the military connection and the Hummer’s off-road capabilities, billing the vehicle as ‘‘the world’s most serious 4x4.’’ Modernista! won the account because it was the only agency that attempted to fashion a wider appeal by going beyond the tough-guy, army-truck image.
The principals involved in the campaign did not lack experience in selling cars. Modernista!’s cofounder, Lance Jensen, had worked with Hummer’s advertising director, Liz Vanzura, when she was at Volkswagen of America and he was with the Boston-based ad agency Arnold Communications. Both played key roles in developing Volkswagen’s award-winning ‘‘Drivers Wanted’’ campaign. Vanzura commented that, while the Volkswagen ads were aimed at ‘‘cool, young people,’’ her new mission was to sell Hummers to ‘‘cool, rich people.’’
Even before hiring Modernista!, GM had done a great deal of market research. According to Ted Evanoff, writing for the Indianapolis Star, ‘‘In 1999 researchers stumbled across the notion that an unlikely cross-section of America—surgeons, dot-com millionaires, rock stars, high school students, corporate execs—prized their individuality. And they regarded the rugged Hummer as a symbol of individuality, especially compared with the typical sport-utility common in suburbia.’’ Modernista! was given 2,200 pages of market data to distill into an advertising message. The agency was also handed a brand that skewed very much toward males, averaging 50 years in age and with an annual household income of more than $200,000. The target buyer for the less-expensive H2, while still male, was 42 years old on average and had a household income above $125,000. Vanzura told Chris Reidy of the Boston Globe that the coveted audience included ‘‘rugged individualists, adventurous entrepreneurs, and adrenaline junkies.’’ In other interviews she described the target market as ‘‘successful achievers’’ and ‘‘style leaders.’’ She also told Evanoff that Hummer had to vie with other purchases the well-to-do might consider, such as yachts or vacation houses, stating, ‘‘We’re really not competing in an automotive category.’’
The yacht, vacation house, and other status symbols notwithstanding, Hummer competed in the luxury-SUV category against other SUVs, including the Lincoln Navigator, Land Rover’s Range Rover, and the Lexus LX 470. But Hummer’s chief opponent was DaimlerChrysler’s Jeep Wrangler. Boasting similar military roots but extending back to World War II, Jeep had defined the SUV category and at its height in 1993 controlled nearly 30 percent of the traditional SUV market. Over the following several years, however, the brand failed had to introduce new models, and its lessexpensive ones faced increasingly stiff competition, resulting in a severe erosion of sales. As long as Hummer was not a direct competitor, DaimlerChrysler took little notice of it, but as soon as GM acquired the right to mass-market the Hummer, DaimlerChrysler recognized the threat at the high end of the SUV category and became determined to hold on to Jeep’s reputation as the premier heavy-duty, off-road brand. The two vehicles had slightly different target markets, however. Jeep appealed to consumers who loved the outdoors and might attend one of the dozens of Jeep Jamboree off-road events held throughout the year. Typical Hummer customers, on the other hand, wanted the off-road capabilities the vehicle had to offer but were more interested in the image it created. They were as likely to drive their Hummers to an upscale mall as up a mountain.
In preparation for marketing the lower-priced H2, Modernista! instituted a bridge campaign, paid for by AM General, to sell the H1 while repositioning the brand. As Will Uronis, an associate creative director at Modernista!, explained to the Boston Herald ’s Greg Gatlin, ‘‘Hollywood had defined what Hummers stood for—war, explosions and arrogance . . .We just took a look at another facet of the truck.’’ Jensen added, ‘‘We went out and talked to guys that drove them . . . they don’t all hunt and kill things.’’ Nevertheless, Hollywood movies had done a good job of making consumers aware of the Hummer. Market research conducted in 1999 indicated that as many as one in five buyers of full-size SUVs considered purchasing the Hummer. The bridge campaign was intended to play to the ‘‘rugged individualists’’ who, research revealed, were attracted to the Hummer and to set the stage for the launch of theH2 by creating an emotional attachment to the brand that transcended the hard-edged image fostered by Hollywood. According to Evanoff, writing in the Indianapolis Star, the promotion of the H1 was intended to create a ‘‘halo’’ over the brand, providing ‘‘the foundation for a brand image that will carry the smaller H2.’’ The first national ads for the GM-owned Hummer began appearing on August 13, 2001. It was an all-print campaign that featured photographs of the vehicle in lush locales in Chile. Not only did the pictures suggest where the H1, with its off-road prowess, could take the viewer, but they also made the big truck look small. It was the first time Hummer was not portrayed covered in mud or linked to the military. Reinforcing the visual message of the ad was the text, which included the headline ‘‘How did my soul get way out here?’’ and the concluding text ‘‘Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. And sometimes in the middle of nowhere you find yourself. The legendary H1.’’ Hummer’s longtime tagline, ‘‘World’s most serious 4x4,’’ was replaced by ‘‘Like nothing else.’’ The four ads ran through the rest of 2001, appearing in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Esquire, Spin, Wired, and Red Herring. Hummer’s 50 dealers were also encouraged to use the ads created by Modernista! to bring continuity to the brand’s makeover, with some of their media costs being reimbursed by a cooperative advertising program. The H2, based on GM’s Chevrolet Tahoe full-size SUV, was introduced in July 2002. A second model featuring a small pickup bed and a cargo door was supposed to be offered at the same time, but the launch was pushed back, partly because the vehicle needed more work but also as a way to extend the marketing buzz the brand was creating. The new H2, with a base price of $48,000, was about half the price of the H1 and, despite being called the ‘‘baby Hummer,’’ essentially the same size. But it featured a smaller, less noisy gas engine rather than a cumbersome diesel one, and it had comforts and customizable options the H1 lacked but that were expected in a luxury SUV.
The introduction of the H2 was supported by another print campaign developed by Modernista! While the ‘‘Like nothing else’’ tagline of the previous ads was retained, the look of the new ads was markedly different, relying on dramatic close-ups set against bold, sky-blue backgrounds.
Like the first ads, the new ones ran in a wide range of magazines, with the text tailored to the publication. For example, in the Robb Report, which covered all things luxurious, the text read, ‘‘Excessive. In a Rome at the height of its power sort of way.’’ The Vanity Fair text read, ‘‘Threaten the men in your office in a whole new way,’’ part of an effort to increase the number of women buying the vehicles. Another ad proclaimed, ‘‘Perfect for rugby moms.’’ About 10 percent of H1 owners were women, and one goal of the H2 campaign was to increase that number to 25 percent. Outdoor ads were also produced, running in 14 major markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit. Print and outdoor ads were made available for the use of dealers. The first Hummer television ads aired in mid-August 2002. The initial three 30-second spots, intended to romanticize the truck, were shot in Iceland and in Vancouver, British Columbia, and featured both natural and urban locations. They showed friends in a Hummer speeding over the tundra of Iceland or a professional woman weaving through traffic in a city. Set to rock music, the only words in the spots were text statements such as ‘‘Maybe if you can, you will.’’ A second phase of the television campaign played on people’s perception of the Hummer as a gas-guzzling road hog. In one spot a young boy constructed a small wooden version of the Hummer to enter in a soapbox derby, while The Who’s ‘‘Happy Jack’’ played in the background and the little girl next door looked on. At the start of the big race the other boys scoffed at little Jack and his less-than-streamlined racer, but he prevailed by abandoning the asphalt course, breaking the rules to go cross-country and win the race and the girl. Through the humor of the spot Jack was iconoclast, offering subliminal reassurance to potential Hummer customers who might feel guilty about buying a vehicle that got about 13 miles to a gallon of gas on the highway. A second Hummer spot, also displaying a tough side, hearkened back to the Asteroids video game of the 1980s, with a spaceship blasting boulders only to confront an indestructible Hummer, which chased the ship off the screen.
GM and Modernista! succeeded in introducing Hummer to a wider market, but after a strong showing in 2003, sales began to tail off, partly because of high gas prices. To regain lost ground, in 2004 GM introduced the H2 SUT (sport-utility truck). This was followed by the unveiling in 2005 of the H3, a midsize Hummer priced from $29,500 to $32,000. Almost 17 inches shorter, 1,700 pounds lighter, and more fuel-efficient at 20 miles per gallon, it was a vehicle GM hoped women and younger drivers would find more appealing. In pitching the vehicle to a mass market, Hummer and Modernista! faced a new task. Putting a positive spin on the challenge, Jensen told Jeremy W. Peters of the New York Times, ‘‘The brand has a lot of different personality levels . . . You can do the serious capability stuff, the real rough-and-tumble rock climbing stuff, the peaceful back-to-nature stuff.’’ Industry analyst Mary Ann Keller disagreed, telling the New York Times that it was impossible to sell Hummer to the masses:
‘‘How in the world can you possibly fathom that something that looks like a military vehicle is practical for the average driver?’’