General Motors Death Watch 3: Safety First?

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

OnStar's radio ads are powerful stuff. The 30-second documentaries– featuring real life rescue coordination by OnStar staff– jerk more tears than Terms of Endearment and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood combined. The fact that you can summon the same emergency crew by punching 911 into you cell is neither here nor there. After hearing an OnStar rep soothing a toddler crying "Momma's passed out", you'd gladly get a second mortgage to pay for their emergency coverage.

Considering the ads' impact on OnStar's takeup rate, the General's plan to translate the radio spots into a series of 30-minute TV infomercials makes perfect sense. Provided the producers keep it real (in the best 'based on a true story' TV tradition), the marketing campaign will be a sure-fire hit. You can almost hear new customers choking back the tears as they relay their credit card number to their toll-free friends.

But the OnStar effect doesn't end there. The service's commercial success has infected the rest of The General's marketing staff. The safety bug has gone viral.

A recent TV ad for the Saturn Vue highlights the pathology. In this flawlessly executed vignette, a young woman admits that she bought a Saturn SUV because impending motherhood shifted her priorities towards safety (and away from imports). While exploiting maternal paranoia is a no-brainer for admen aiming at the family car market, the commercial is a major change in Saturn's branding. If the TV ad is anything to go by, 'The People's Car Company' is now, simply, 'Deathbusters'.

But wait! There's more! (NOW how much would you pay?) In a recently unleashed national TV campaign called 'Only GM', fresh-faced children tell viewers how their lives were saved by GM safety features (including OnStar). The odd thing about the ad– other than a strong sense that the pint-sized "survivors" were carefully rehearsed– is that it touts GM's entire model line-up. It's not just Saturn that keeps you from experiencing the last word in personal depreciation. It's GMC, Pontiac, Hummer, Saturn, Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac and Saab.

Well how about that: GM as Volvo, times eight. Cynics might point out that the majority of GM's safety features are either federally mandated or late to market (e.g. their SUV anti-rollover technology). But there's no doubt that GM's multi-divisional we-got-your-back shtick represents a significant shift in The General's marketing focus. (Just having a focus is pretty big news for GM.) What's more, there's no reason to believe a division-wide safety campaign wouldn't work. It's OnStar's "Field of Nightmares" writ large: if you protect them, they will buy.

The ads– the first multi-marque General Motors campaign since tail fins went out of fashion– may also reflect a sea change in GM's overall corporate strategy. (Just having a corporate strategy…) Maybe the big guns have finally listened to all those critics who've condemned the automaker for badge-engineering its divisions' identities into oblivion. Rather than mounting a hugely expensive effort to re-delineate its brands through new product and marketing, perhaps The General has simply thrown in the towel. Are we about to see GM fold all its divisions into one?

Yes, it sounds dopey. But why would GM suddenly announce that it's going to affix the corporate logo on ALL of its brands' products? Will a Corvette owner gain street cred when onlookers clock that his favorite phallic symbol was built by the world's largest car company? Will a Hummer piss off more tree-huggers by virtue of its dual branding? Nope. So what's the point? If you discount the move as a morale booster for financially challeged stockholders, GM's big badge boom is a tacit acknowledgement that the whole multi-brand thing is a dead flow chart walking.

Think about it: Ford is the other big multi-divisional carmaker, and look how THEY'RE doing: Lincoln's a joke, Mercury's the punch line, Jaguar's a drain, the rest of the boutiques are irrelevant and the mainline brand is slouching towards Bethlehem. BMW and Mercedes have only one subdivision apiece (MINI and Chrysler) and they sell millions of cars in every imaginable market segment. In short, all those analysts calling for GM's dissection could be punditing in the wrong direction. The answer to GM's perilous financials could be consolidation.

Let's face it: these days, only die-hard pistonheads care about brand history. We live in a world where a Chevy can be a re-badged Korean or Australian import, where a Sky or Solstice will fly out the door regardless of the badge on its butt, where a Chevy Silverado and a GMC Sierra are all pretty much of a muchness. So why not drop all pretence of brand differentiation, reduce costs across the board and sell all 40-plus products under the GM banner? As OnStar proves, sensible and safe aren't always the same thing.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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2 of 3 comments
  • Robert Farago Robert Farago on Apr 14, 2007

    Well, the idea was that GM needs some kind of brand rationalization. Clearly, that's not going to happen. Clearly, it should.

  • Sherman Lin Sherman Lin on Apr 17, 2007

    Brand rationalization yes but GM branding of GM as a brand? I don't now. I wonder if it might even hurt them with Saab or Hummer if any of those customers are put off by discovering their vehicle is a GM vehicle. So many great past articles, many should be revisited to see what has progressed or regressed with the passing of time

  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.
  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys dudes off the rails on drugs and full of hate and retribution. so is musky.
  • Big Al from Oz Musk and Trump are of the same ilk, except Musk's IQ is a damn site higher than Trumps. Musk like Trump is only into himself. Musk doesn't care about Trump only Musk. Musk sees more dollars if Trump wins.Hey, I'm Big Al again!3
  • Rover Sig We have a car with two fake exhausts in the bumper, but a large shiny muffler visible hanging down on one side, not aligned with the fake exhaust exits. Horrendous. I had to paint the shiny muffler with high-temp black paint to make it less visible. Exhaust pipes were meant to be round and hang below the bumper, and they can be made quiet or loud as the engineers like. But fake exhausts rank down there with fake intake vents on the side of that old Buick.
  • EBFlex Of course it does. What a silly question