DETROIT – General Motors shifted the strategy of Chevrolet in the U.S. two years ago and the 105-year-old brand now finds itself in overdrive, filling the automaker’s coffers with tens of millions of incremental dollars as it pursues profit before volume and modesty over hubris.
“We feel good as we walk into 2017,” says Brian Sweeney, U.S. vice president-Chevrolet.
There’s good reason for optimism at GM’s bread-and-butter brand, which over the past 35 years consistently has dueled Ford as the No.1 make in the U.S. on annual volumes upwards of 2.7 million. It has fallen behind Toyota just once since 1980, when GM went bankrupt in 2009 and wary consumers moved the bowtie down their shopping list.
Chevy these days boasts a rock-solid product portfolio, especially on the car side after five new or refreshed entries launched in the past two years to better complement a historically stronger truck lineup. The Cruze compact car, Malibu midsize sedan and hybrid, Volt plug-in and Camaro sports coupe were redone and arrived to generally positive reviews, although lackluster demand for cars overall in the U.S. exists.
This year, the brand ushers in two new CUVs with the next-generation Traverse and Equinox, which hit at the heart of today’s market. A third CUV, the all-new battery-electric Bolt, launches this year, too.
Chevy also dove back into the midsize-pickup segment in 2014 with the Colorado and it continues to go gangbusters, while the entry-level Trax CUV launched two years ago was refreshed for ’17 to meet rapidly emerging demand.
Chevy’s market traction is evident in rising retail-share gains, which saw the brand close 2016 with an 11.2% stake compared with 10.7% in 2015 and 10.4% in 2014, according to J.D. Power and Associates numbers provided by GM.
The brand has been the benefactor of a rising tide, as the U.S. market set back-to-back record annual sales the past two years and showed a seemingly insatiable consumer thirst for pickups, SUVs and CUVs that saw trucks account for 60.6% of industry sales in 2016. At Chevy, trucks represented 64.9% of sales, according to WardsAuto data.
“They’ve done a good job invigorating the product line,” says Daniel Binns, executive director and global brand engineer-automotive practice at Interbrand, a New York-based global brand agency. “They’ve aligned with the needs of the market and have worked on the fundamentals of the brand.”
In a stroke of good fortune, Chevy’s new-product cadence aligned with America’s exit from the Great Recession. It was a clear opportunity for Chevy to not only indulge in an impending upswing in sales but also to dust off a brand that, due to an influx of import models years ago and a preference among the large Baby Boomer cohort for alternative brands, saw its overall market share plummet to less than 13% in 2009 after controlling as much as 18% of industry sales in the 1990s.
“We knew the product portfolio was coming and the (sales) trajectory was moving in the right direction and we were going to be pretty well situated to take advantage of it,” says Steve Majoros, director-marketing, cars and crossovers at Chevrolet.
But to properly put the polish back on the Chevy badge, GM brass decided to put an end to excessive sales to rental-car companies and keep those vehicles in the more-profitable retail channel where it hoped residual values also would improve, which makes for more attractive financing for buyers and cheaper lease pricing.
In the past two years, GM trimmed rental sales by 124,000 units and its retail share gains over the past 24 months are equivalent to 120,000 units, although its overall annual deliveries since 2013 have remained in the ballpark of 2.0 million. But with average retail transaction prices at about $30,000 and margins pushing 10%, Chevy has boosted the profitability of its products in the past two years by tens of millions of dollars.
Expect a similar approach in 2017, says Sweeney, an intensively competitive sales executive who complements marketing boss Paul Edwards, the brand’s even-keeled chief strategist. Majoros, an outsider with the creative bone, rounds out a boots-on-the-ground team leading Chevy’s revival.
“We’re going to continue to be disciplined,” Sweeney tells WardsAuto on the floor of the recent North American International Auto Show. “We’ll be down in rental in 2017, not a ton, but we’re going to continue to focus on retail share.”
Some critics do not see the discipline. They point to an overly aggressive production schedule in the fourth quarter of last year, when signs of a sales plateau were clear before the leaves turned colors in GM’s hometown here, and aggressive incentives to trim inventories. The automaker eventually chose to ease output last month. The cuts have yet to take effect.
In the past, though, the automaker would have likely discounted more and dumped extra vehicles into rental instead of making difficult production adjustments. Not any more, Majoros says.
“I’ve seen it from the outside,” says Majoros, who joined Chevy three years ago from the Detroit advertising agency Campbell-Ewald, a longtime partner for the brand. “I saw the GM nod, kicking the can down the road.
“But we are disciplined,” he adds. “The rental guys will say (they) need more. We say tough (luck), go back and tell them we didn’t sell as many Cruzes as we thought we would, so you can’t sell them the same number of Cruzes because that is going to put us over our cap when we are diligently trying to manage residuals.”
Proof in the Pudding
Chevy’s boasts are not hot air, either. According to Kelley Blue Book, the brand’s 6-month residual values finished at 37.7%, just a single point behind non-luxury-brand winner Toyota in the consumer buying guide’s Best Residual Value Awards. That’s better than Subaru and Honda and it is not a fluke; Chevy finished third behind Toyota and Subaru last year.
“They have improved, but not to the level of Toyota,” says Michelle Krebs, an industry analyst at KBB. “That’s an area of constant improvement they must continue to work on.”
There is one caveat, however: Pickups and SUVs at the moment command the highest resale value in the marketplace and Chevy’s strong truck lineup underpins its residual-value improvements. At the same time, the data also includes the Volt and Bolt at a time when electrified vehicles do not retain value well.
Nonetheless, KBB analysts say it demonstrates how Chevy’s rental pullback is indeed working.
“It appears the Chevrolet team has found religion as it relates to residual value,” says Eric Ibara, director residual value consulting at KBB. “It will be a test of Chevy’s management team to see if they can hold firm to that strategy this year.”
KBB also ranks the Chevy brand fourth in consideration among buyers behind Toyota, Honda and Ford.
“It is definitely a healthier brand,” Krebs says, singling out technology such as an available built-in Wi-Fi hotspot as an element of the Chevy brand that consumers find valuable.
Edwards, vice president-U.S. marketing at Chevrolet, cites a single, consistent marketing campaign over the last 21 months and a quality story he contends is second to none in the industry.
“It had been more than 30 years since Chevrolet had one campaign in the market,” Edwards marvels, noting national- and dealer-level messages also match up for the first time in many years. “So when you hear from Chevy, you hear it consistently over time.”
Chevy also brandishes more J.D. Power Initial Quality and Dependability awards than any other full-line make in the U.S., he adds. “That’s a very compelling reason to choose the brand.”
A nationwide push to renovate most of the brand’s 3,000 stores also is crossing the finish line, with an estimated $3 billion spent by dealers along with incentive cash from GM, to spruce up retail outlets far longer in the tooth than those of key competitors such as Toyota and Honda.
The upgrades include the addition of new, low-mileage Chevy products to loaner fleets so owners can experience the brand’s latest products while getting their vehicle serviced.
“We’re having great success with that,” Sweeney says. “In the past, it wasn’t always a Chevy. It may have even been (a rental), and we lost the connection with the customer.”
Chevy has made its quality awards the center of its marketing message and recently launched a national commercial highlighting the accolades as part of its out-of-the-box “Real People, Not Actors” advertising campaign.
Binns says the message presumably resonates with Millennials, a consumer group that rivals Baby Boomers in size but is more down-to-earth about their purchasing. They go for the combination of quality and value Chevy is pitching, although it may be time to turn a corner in the campaign, he says.
“They may be spending a bit much on TV to tell that story,” he says. “They have to start thinking about how they are going to evolve beyond this functional message of quality to something more emotional.”
A new commercial from Chevy featuring the Batman LEGO character may, or may not, be a signal the brand’s advertising is taking a step in that very direction. The commercial, which links with “The LEGO Batman Movie” coming out this month and a 17-ft. (5.2-m) LEGO concept car unveiled at the auto show here, spoofs the “Real People” campaign.
Whatever its intention, the spot is a rare moment of self-deprecating humor from GM.
Majoros confesses the automaker’s ignition-switch crisis of 2014, which affected Chevy most acutely, created a new self-awareness.
“Sometimes the alcoholic has to admit that he has a problem,” Majoros recalls. “We had that disruptive moment (and) we said we are either going to put this plan in place or God knows what’s going to happen.
“We were at our depths, in terms of opinion, in terms of momentum, we didn’t have a unified go-to-market campaign. It took us time to figure those things out, but there is no doubt this is a leadership-driven, team-oriented culture and we’re gonna put the throttle down.”