Final Inspection

Making Chevy the Apple of GM’s Eye

General Motors wants to position its automotive brands among the best on the planet, telling financial analysts earlier this month it expects to see the day when Chevrolet is right up there with Apple in global brand value.

Currently, GM says, no automotive names are among the world’s top-24 consumer brands, a list topped by Google, Apple, Visa, Louis Vuitton and IBM, respectively.

But marketing chief Joel Ewanick is out to change that, saying the time has come to stop emphasizing sales-volume and market-share goals and shift the focus to brand-building. Put Chevrolet on the same plane as Apple and everything else will fall into place, he contends.

While the target seems correct, the goal is an ambitious one. To find out just how tough it will be for GM to achieve and what paths it might take, I sought the advice of two brand experts: Tom Trenta, president of Egg Strategy’s Chicago office, and Jim Walton, CEO of Brand Acceleration in Indianapolis.

Both say it will be extremely difficult, but not altogether impossible, to position Chevrolet among the top consumer brands in the world.

Today’s global-communications technology makes it “easier than ever” to rebuild a brand, Trenta notes. “But, man, it’s still a big, daunting task.”

Here’s some advice the experts have for GM:

Don’t forget to fix the corporate brand, too.

Chevrolet won’t gain traction if consumers don’t think highly of GM. Task No.1? Convince the U.S. government to sell its remaining stake in the company as soon as possible.

“There are a lot of people out there that are angry (GM) took the automotive bailout,” says Walton.

Don’t try to reinvent Chevrolet.

“That’s nearly insurmountable,” Trenta says of such a task. “Chevrolet already is an iconic brand. They need to embrace what it stands for and make that more relevant (to consumers).”

Find a Steve Jobs to lead the charge.

Typically, that person would be the company CEO, but someone like Ewanick could fill the bill.

“They need somebody at the helm who is a brilliant strategist, who is a big-vision person, who will capture media attention like Steve Jobs does,” Walton says, pointing to the Apple chairman, who resigned his CEO position yesterday for health reasons. “There are people who buy an Apple product because it has the Apple name on it, and that is directly correlated to Steve Jobs.”

Trenta agrees. “There needs to be an iconic individual, (And) there needs to be strong people on the inside with the same beliefs who can carry (out the mission) for a long time.”

Be a leader, not a follower.

GM needs to go out and make “killer cars,” sums up Walton.

Sell the identical message worldwide.

“Apple here and Apple in Australia and Apple in Buenos Aires is the same everywhere,” Trenta notes. “And that sameness is what makes it so strong. A market by market, model by model (branding) approach is a recipe for failure.”

Dealers represent one of the wildcards. Walton says they’re an asset, because they often boast better relationships with consumers than does GM. But Trenta warns the independent retail network also leaves Chevrolet vulnerable.

“Chevy doesn’t really own its brand,” Trenta points out. “There are dealers all across the country who every day are telling me how cheaply they can sell me a car. Everybody’s got their fingers on what that brand stands for.”

So how long would it take to transition Chevrolet into a global juggernaut? Provided everything goes right, the better part of a decade, the brand coaches say.

But that’s only if everything goes right.

Let’s face it, this isn’t the first time GM has talked about its brand-building goals (anyone remember Ron Zarrella?). And while skeptical this attempt will end any differently, Trenta finds reason for some optimism.

“The most interesting thing to me is they’re making this statement in the midst of where we are now,” he says. GM isn’t simply flush with cash and looking for something to spend it on; it is coming off its lowest point in history and appears to be seeking fundamental changes in the way it operates.

“That actually gives me hope,” Trenta says.