GM's New Brand Strategy: Chevy Uber Alles

Andrew Dederer
by Andrew Dederer
gm s new brand strategy chevy uber alles
When Alfred P. Sloan took the reins at General Motors, he had a clear vision of the company’s future: “a car for every purse and purpose." Sloan’s business model– offer customers a wide range of vehicles across distinct brands and encourage them to move “up” within the portfolio– was wildly successful. GM soon replaced Ford as US market leader, and never looked back. Ninety years later, the same structure is in place, but the car market has changed. And GM’s portfolio is part of the problem, not the solution.

While most enthusiasts recognize the philosophy behind Sloan’s GM brand structure, few realize that each company within the GM fold used to have just ONE car in its line-up. Even during the 50’s, in the middle of GM’s “golden years,” each brand had no more than two wheelbases and three body styles. With such a limited number of models within each brand, overlap was minimal. Moving “up-market” was simple enough; you took your old car and your new money to a different dealer.

When GM started adding new models, expanding their offerings to cover bases like “compact car,” “utility vehicle” and “minivan,” they altered the dynamics of their business. Despite this horizontal model spread, GM tried to hew to a vertical brand system. Buick and Olds stayed true to their roots, offering two to three big cars (aside from the Cadet experiment). But Chevy and Pontiac became their own worst enemies. Chevy dealers currently sell over a dozen different vehicles over a wide spectrum of price points, from $10k econoboxes to a wide range of pickups to $70k sports cars. At the same time, Pontiac’s place in GM’s firmament has become unclear.

The problem isn’t so much the sheer spread of vehicles– most companies’ “main” brands spread as far. The problem is that Chevy is still selling only discount cars, even though it embraces up-market price points. GM’s other divisions also have a discombobulated product mix. Pontiac exists in the gaps above each Chevy price point. Cadillac is still perched at the top of the market, but their line shows little commonality (save a bit of “bling” here and there). Product overlap is endemic for all divisions. Actually, it isn’t so much overlap as “strangulation”. Chevy is trapped under the new trinity of Pontiac/Buick/GMC. For every Chevy, there’s one or more up-market counterparts it dare not exceed.

Where once you chose your GM car with your pocketbook, now it’s more a matter of taste. GM’s website illustrates the point perfectly; enter a price range into the “shop by price function” and you get a list of differently-sized models and vehicle types across several brands. If a GM car buyer wants a certain type of vehicle or a vehicle at a given price, they have to shop at least two and quite possibly four GM brands’ dealers to see all their choices. Otherwise, they could end up being steered to an inappropriate vehicle– and we all know what that does to a brand.

Acting like it’s still 1955 has left GM with a huge product line that’s full of holes, along with “boutique” brands scattered about like polka dots. This so-called strategy’s lack of focus robs Chevy of the quality it needs to be a reasonable alternative to the price-sensitive end of their “foreign” competition. It restricts Pontiac, GMC and Buick to marketing cars “better than Chevy” (a standard that keeps slipping lower). It detaches Cadillac, Hummer and Saab from the ownership ladder. In fact, GM’s brands don’t just steal sales from each other; they pull each other into a pit of mediocrity.

GM’s oversized dealer network makes the problem worse– and solutions problematic. One answer: make some of the marques into models. Instead of trying to keep Buick and Pontiac alive with a tiny line-up and a huge dealer network, GM could fold their products into Chevy’s portfolio. The top trim sedans in the largest two sizes could be called Buicks, while a Pontiac would denote a performance model (the GT’s not the SS’s). GMC could go back to its commercial customers.

To make this realignment fly, GM would have to transform all Chevy and all Pontiac/Buick/GMC dealers into Chevy dealers, all selling the same full line. The remaining single-marque dealers would be retired (a more affordable prospect than killing the two networks). Of course, there would be a severe dealer shake-out afterwards; only the strongest Chevy stores would survive. But that’s no bad thing. From a corporate perspective, the biggest loss would be less presidents, a smaller ad budget and a less burdensome bureaucracy (oh darn).

This brand consolidation would allow GM to offer a car for every “purpose” and most “purses” under a single roof. Alfred Sloan would spin in the grave at the idea, but it just might work.

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  • Dhathewa Dhathewa on Aug 04, 2006

    KingElvis, what's with all the pushrod motors? And why not have engine options? Maybe not dozens but two or three. People have different needs, make different choices available. Let's bring back final drive ratios as options, too. I'm fairly certain that my Dad had a choice of engines and final drives on his '69 Ford wagon (the only car I saw him buy new, a choice he regretted forever after). I believe the options were an I-6 of some sort, a 302, a 351 (his choice), a 390 and a 429. Of course, if you're going to have engine options, it would be best if they were all good engines.

  • KingElvis KingElvis on Aug 07, 2006

    The idea is to make the brands more "exclusive" by restricting engines to certain models and/or brands. It's part and parcel of preserving Buick and Pontiac - they have to offer something you can't get on a Chevy.

  • Tassos Before you rush to buy this heap of rusty metal, maybe you should wait a day or two.I hear Tim will have an Model T next time.
  • Redapple2 I d just buy one already sorted. Too many high level skills (wiring, paint, body panel fitment et. al.) that i dont have. And I dont fancy working 100 s of hours for $3 /hour.
  • 28-Cars-Later I'm actually surprised at this and not sure what to make of it. In recent memory Senator Biden has completely ignored an ecological disaster in Ohio, and then ignored a tragic fire in Hawaii until his handlers were goaded in sending him and his visit turned into it's own disaster, but we skipped nap time for this sh!t show? Seriously? We really are through the looking glass now, "votes" no longer matter (Hillary almost won being the worst presidential candidate since 1984 before he claimed the crown) and outside of Corvette nostalgia Joe doesn't care let alone know what day it happens to be. Could they really be afraid of Trump, who AFAIK has planned no appearance or run his mouth on this issue? Just doesn't make sense, granted this is Clown World so maybe its my fault for trying to find sense in a senseless act.
  • Tassos If you only changed your series to the CORRECT "Possibly Collectible, NOT Daily Driver, NOT Used car of the day", it would sound much more accurate AND TRUTHFUL.Now who would collect THIS heap of trash for whatever misguided reason, nostalgia for a much worse automotive era or whatever, is another question.
  • ToolGuy Price dropped $500 overnight. (Wait 10 more days and you might get it for free?)