New GM marketing guru's daunting task

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- After helping Hyundai increase its sales during the recession, one of the very few automakers to manage that feat, Joel Ewanick has been working to turn things around for GM. There aren't many tougher jobs in any business.

Just seven months after joining GM as head of marketing for the U.S., Ewanick just got promoted to Global Chief Marketing Officer, a new role at GM. Now he's responsible for GM's marketing in places as far-flung as Asia, South America and Europe and brands unfamilar to most Americans like Holden, Opel and Daewoo.

Joel Ewanick

In an interview with shortly after his promotion was announced, Ewanick outlined his strategy for boosting GM's image around the world. The basic ideas: truly know the customer and respect the locals.

In his hew role, Ewanick will operate in the top tier of GM's international executives reporting to CEO Dan Akerson and to GM's North American president Mark Reuss.

This is the first time the GM has has a marketing person among the most senior executive ranks.

"This brings the customer and marketing to that table," Ewanick said, "and it's another signal that this isn't the company that we've had before."

In the past, Ewanick said, GM marketed its products based on simple notions of what people wanted, things like quality, fuel economy, good deals.

Those are fine ideas, Ewanick said, but if you dig more you find the real reasons that people gravitate to one brand or another.

"I come from the school of thought that you want to know the customer better than they know themselves," he said.

Beyond the rational reasons people buy a car, he said you there are also emotional reasons that push a buyer towards a Chevrolet instead of a Hyundai or vice versa.

While at Hyundai, Ewanick used that kind of understanding to help craft the "Hyundai Assurance" program. That was Hyundai's promise to buy back your new car if you lost your job. At the time, Ewanick pointed out its emotional resonance with customers who needed a sense of security more than rebates.

"We know that customers are looking for brands that stand for something," he said.

That was the reason behind the new "Chevy runs deep" ads. The initial ads tap into the nostalgic feelings Americans have about a brand that's been part of their culture for a hundred years.

But future ads will stretch the meaning of "Chevy runs deep" far beyond that, he said. Already, GM has launched a Chevrolet-branded carbon reduction campaign including a Web site at all tied into the release of the Chevrolet Volt.

He's not trying to obliterate the good feelings and memories people have of Chevrolet, Ewanick said, just expand on those feelings.

"I get very emotional about all this because people relate their cars and their brands in ways a lot marketers don't appreciate," he said.

In his role as GM's new global marketing chief, Ewanick will be careful not to dictate how cars will be marketed in places half way around the world. He's seen that kind of central planning first hand during his jobs at Porsche and Hyundai, he said, and it doesn't work.

In those jobs he was the local guy trying to explain to masterminds in Germany and South Korea that, while their marketing campaigns might work brilliantly in Stuttgart or Seoul, there weren't going to play in Los Angeles and Des Moines.

"I had to try to explain that Americans aren't buying Porsches for the same reasons Germans buy Porsches," he said. "Our relationship to the brand is different."

Ewanick will co-ordinate marketing activities so common themes can be used where it makes sense. He mentioned music and major movie tie-ins as things that readily cross boundaries. But he'll let regional vice presidents make most of the decisions for their own countries and regions.

"This is the way it's supposed to work," he said. To top of page

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