When it comes to launching a new marketing strategy and ad campaign for Chevrolet, the gorillas in the room are Chevy's once illustrious advertising past: namely the Heartbeat of America campaign that ran from 1987 to 1994, and the "Like A Rock campaign that ran from 1991 to 2004.
Those two iconic, Hall-of-Fame caliber, indelible campaigns have made any attempt at solving Chevy's advertising problem a nightmare for every bright-eyed, ambitious advertising or marketing manager that has taken their turn at the Chevy wheel, and the ad agency that held the account until a few months ago.
A few things have changed, though, in the last 12 months at Chevrolet and parent company General Motors. And GM chief marketing officer Joel Ewanick and his hand-picked ad agency, San Francisco ad shop Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, are trying to stage a new era for Chevy starting tonight on the MLB World Series. The effort also precedes GM's initial public offering of stock in the new company in a few weeks. And the company is cognizant that many an investor will be watching the World Series.
To position Chevy for the future, GM and Goodby are not bashful about trying to tap the past. A 60-second so-called "Anthem" TV spot, voiced by Michigan-bred actor Tim (Home Improvement) Allen, draws on black-and-white footage of GM workers from the 1940s assembling vehicles, houses being built in the 1950s, a young couple in the 1960s full of hope and promise driving... then a cut to modern Chevrolets like Malibu, Cruze and Volt. The first line of the ad starts, "100 years ago..." A new theme line for Chevy, though Ewanick says it is not a "tagline," is "Chevy Runs Deep."
In all the TV spots that will break this week, including some 30-second ads meant to stir the emotional juices, Chevy is positioned as a brand that is part of the American fabric in song, culture and in most of our pasts in one way or another.
"We aren't going to be wrapping ourselves in the flag," says Ewanick, who arrived at GM last Spring after several years running Hyundai's advertising and a brief six-week stint at Nissan before accepting the post at GM. "No question we are out to make people feel the depth of the Chevy brand in cars, especially cars, and trucks and its role in America."
The additional ads use an approach we have seen before to convey a car company's heritage and the importance of the automobile in American life – snapshots. Two ads use snapshots of young people with their first cars, Chevys, going back to the '50s and culminating with a present day teen next to a Camaro. In another ad we see heartstring-tugging snapshots going back to the '50s and culminating with the present of people bringing their babies home in Chevys. And in another simple ad, perhaps the best of this first effort by Goodby, we see an ad that is a series of vignettes about dogs in Chevy pickup trucks all set to Hank Williams singing "Move It On Over."
Chevrolet: Dogs and Pickups
If "Chevy Runs Deep" doesn't conjure up Hall-of-Fame copywriting like "Heartbeat of America," Goodby asks that we be patient. "Taglines have to live in a context, and we are going to be doing some things in the coming months that you have never seen before, and the line will really come alive," he says.
Goodby, to make his point, said that when his partner told him about the tagline that Goodby is perhaps best known for today, "Got Milk?," he was a skeptic. Since then, it has become part of the fabric of American culture and the lexicon. "Even [Nike's] 'Just Do It,' took time," says Goodby.
Ewanick says that he is not calling "Chevy Runs Deep," a tagline, but a theme, because the tagline, he says, "will be the Chevy Bowtie." He is referring to the Chevy logo, which gets a lot of screen-time in the new ads. Indeed, the Chevy logo gets the last screen shot on all the ads, and is reminiscent of the way Ford has often closed ads with the Ford blue oval being polished.
Chevy advertising, until Ewanick tapped Goodby last May, had been handled by Campbell-Ewald of Warren, Michigan since Warren Harding was in the White House. No kidding. The agency had created "Heartbeat...", "Like A Rock," and way before either of those lines, "See The U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet." That last line, still so memorable for many, was created when Harry Truman was President.
But like GM, Campbell-Ewald had hit the wall in 2009. The agency had weak leadership at the top, and couldn't respond to GM's trials as it went through bankruptcy and out again. The agency's creative and strategic work suffered from the same inertia that gripped GM. And all the executives that had long protected the agency politically were either retired or rendered toothless in the company's reorganization.
Campbell-Ewald had created "An American Revolution," themed ads that ran from 2003 to 2009, as well as "Our Country. My Truck" for Chevy trucks that ran in 2006 and 2007. Earlier this year, Chevy ran ads with the tagline/slogan, "Excellence for All," a line Ewanick hated even before he arrived at GM.
Chevrolet: Coming Home
Ewanick, who had used Goodby as his agency at Hyundai, reversed a five-month-old decision to hire Publicis, NY as Chevy's new agency after several months of screening replacement ad shops, and hired Goodby without the typical formal review two weeks after his arrival.
This is not Goodby's first turn with GM. It created Saturn advertising from 2002 to 2007, and did not bathe itself in glory. But to be fair, Saturn had no idea where it was going with product or image, so the agency could hardly be blamed for not getting it right.
This time around, both Ewanick and Goodby believe reminding people of Chevy's past is almost as important as informing them of its present and future. Chevy is 70 percent of GM's sales. Advertising is important to slaving GM's woes. The company, says Ewanick, will in 2011 have a bit more ad dollars to support its four brands than it had in 2008 to support eight brands. It is not a reach to say, "So goes Chevy, so goes the new GM."
Chevrolet Volt: Anthem
The World Series debut of Goodby's first ads is a strong start whether you like the actual slogan or not. Listening to Ewanick and Goodby talk about where they are going with the brand – position Chevy with a "tech" story about fuel economy, design, the Chevy Volt, but in a way that tugs at hearts and memories, and justifies an investment in Chevy today – feels like a sensible strategy. Even more sensible is Ewanick's commitment to stay the course, and not let some bright young ad manager change the whole strategy nine months from now as a means of clawing his or her way up the GM ladder.
Ewanick is a big fan of big media venues like the Super Bowl, World Series, MTV Awards and Olympics. Chevy is getting his Super Bowl ad buys. "Every brand we have is important, but it starts with Chevy," says Ewanick.
David Kiley, an award winning journalist, covers the auto industry from Ann Arbor, MI. He has followed the industry for 25 years, and held posts including Detroit Bureau Chief for USA Today and senior correspondent for BusinessWeek. He is also the author of two books on the industry: Getting The Bugs Out: The Rise, Fall and Comeback of Volkswagen in America [John Wiley and Sons 2001], and Driven: Inside BMW, The Most Admired Car Company in the World [Wiley, 2004].