GM’s global chief marketing officer oversees an advertising juggernaut that last year spent almost $1.8 billion in the U.S., with more than $166 million of that in TV. He talks about why spot TV continues to hold value for GM’s brands; how it can be even more effective; as well as the increasing importance of, and emphasis on, its growing and evolving digital ad strategy.
General Motors intends to commit about the same proportion of its advertising budget to spot TV in the foreseeable future as it has in the recent past. But there are ways to make spot more effective.
Those thoughts come from Joel Ewanick, GM’s in-the-news global chief marketing officer, in an interview with TVNewsCheck Contributing Editor Janet Stilson. He also discusses the curvy road ahead as he continues to shape-shift GM’s marketing efforts.
Ewanick assumed his current post December 2010, a mere seven months after joining the company as VP of U.S. marketing. And that’s just one indication of how he can move with alacrity and surprise.
After this interview was conducted, he made two big announcements. First, he said GM would cease advertising on Facebook by the middle of this year, although it would continue to maintain its promotional pages on the social media service. The Wall Street Journal quoted him as saying Facebook ads “had little impact on consumers’ car purchases.”
About a week later, he said he would not be advertising during the next Super Bowl. “We understand the reach the Super Bowl provides, but with the significant increase in price, we simply can’t justify the expense,” he said in a prepared statement.
Through a company rep, he declined to elaborate further on either move for TVNewsCheck.
Brian Wieser, an analyst at Pivotal Research Group, notes in a report on GM’s Facebook decision that there may have been other motivations. Marketers who publically make such high-profile announcements often do so to extract better terms from media companies. And it’s also a way for marketers to “reinforce internal credibility as solid [cost cutting] managers.”
A few numbers explain the benefits of staying on GM’s good side. According to Kantar Media, GM’s U.S. ad spend last year was almost $1.8 billion, down from $2.2 billion in 2010. Spot TV ad spend in 2011 was slightly more than $166 million, versus about $188 million in 2010.
An edited transcript of Ewanick’s conversation with Stilson follows.
If you look at General Motors’ total media mix, is spot’s slice of that pie changing?
[The share] is flat year over year. And it’s likely to be flat going into next year.
How do you view TV spot, the opportunity?
In terms of spot’s ability to generate consideration and help us to sell cars, I think we haven’t seen much change in the last two to three years, and we don’t see it changing much going forward. It’s still an effective tool for us to sell our message locally. It’s very effective for our dealers and our LMAs [local marketing associations, aka local dealer groups].
Is there something that TV spot sales people should be doing to get more of your business?
One of the things that we continue to try for is the overall quality of the buy — making sure that when we determine the overall effectiveness, we look at it by daypart. We need to make sure that we continue to sell it in the effective quality dayparts.
So are you saying that as part of that, that sales folk need to give you better statistical information to prove the value?
The Japanese auto manufacturers are coming back very much this year from their troubles of 2011. How has that affected your strategy?
I don’t think it impacted it. We’re always worried about the competition, and the Japanese are just part of that. So are the Koreans; so are the Germans; and so are the Americans. We have a long way to go as a company, no doubt about it. And our competition is very, very good.
So it’s not like we said, “Hey, they’re back.” As far as we are concerned they never went anywhere. You have to have the fundamental attitude to never take any of these competitors for granted. They’re just too good.
Has the tsunami of political advertising this year changed your spot strategy?
I believe for the most part — as we do any time we see a political year coming — we anticipate and prepare ourselves for that. So I do not see any urgency or any holes in our plan for 2012.
I understand that the traffic is growing exponentially on General Motors’ websites. Can you talk a little bit about that?
As you know, we have gone through a couple of changes in our Web design, and the functionality of our websites in terms of the back end. Because of that, we find that it’s a much more engaging consumer experience, and we’re also constantly looking for ways to drive consumers back to our websites.
As we become more efficient, we’re finding that our traffic is going up significantly. Chevrolet.com, for example, here in the United States has to be one of the largest consumer websites in America. It has got to [rank] in the top 15 or 20 at least, in terms of traffic.
Because of that robustness, has that changed your online spend for non-GM sites?
At this point we still see third-party sites as a very effective tool. They go hand in glove with what we’re trying to do on our own sites, and we need to have a cohesive strategy back and forth. There has to be a partnership with our third-party vendors, for sure.
What do you think about sites operated by TV stations? Are they of value?
They’re not as impactful to us as the traditional auto-shopping third sites like AutoTrader.com or ShopAutoWeek.com.
Tell me a little bit about your digital marketing strategy overall. How is it evolving?
Digital marketing still continues to be one of our most important evolutionary changes, and we continue to put significant resources towards it on an ongoing basis. We’re constantly looking at ways to make it more efficient. So if there’s something we may have done last year that [wasn’t satisfactory, we] take those dollars and reinvest them into another digital idea.
We’re not going to cut back on our overall digital footprint. We’re going to increase it. But we’re going to constantly look for ways to evolve it, change it around and find ways to make it more efficient.
What ad sectors have you taken away from to add more dollars to the digital mix?
I don’t think there’s any big secret that print continues to go down, both magazines and newspapers, and digital has gone up. If we incrementally add dollars over time, those incremental dollars tend to go into digital.
There have been huge changes in your agencies. You have got Commonwealth now in operation, and I understand Carat has also opened up new offices in Detroit. How is that all coming along? Are they still staffing up, or are they fully operational?
On the media side [with Carat], the transition we believe is going really well. A week ago Sunday, we transferred four million search terms here in North America alone on Google, and it went flawlessly. We are very happy with that. Those kinds of transitions are happening all over the world and going quite well. The creative side [transition for Comonwealth] is happening as we speak.
You’ve had key marketing positions at Hyundai, Nissan and Porsche. Were there certain lessons that you took away from those past experiences that you are applying to your work at General Motors?
Having those experiences, both the positive and negative experiences in marketing programs, has really helped us here to develop what I think is a pretty robust marketing plan for each of the brands — from Cadillac to Chevrolet to Opel to GNC to Buick — whatever it might be. So I find each one has been additive. Each one has been very instrumental in building an overall experience of what works, and understanding the customer.
Were there any specific lessons that you can share?
Marketing to a luxury customer is a challenge. In some ways, you have to understand them better than they understand themselves as to why they buy a luxury product.
With Porsche, some marketing programs worked better than others. And we were able to take that learning and apply it to Cadillac in an effective way. We’re much more efficient, I think now, knowing that some things work better than others, and we apply the ones that we think have the best opportunity to succeed.
What do you consider to be your toughest challenge right now?
We’re trying to get the fundamentals, the discipline, the strategy around the world seeded in every one of our countries — all 104 of our countries — getting everybody on the same song sheet if you will. This is the one thing that’s an imperative to our overall success.
Our competition, in some cases, is ahead of us in many markets. And we’re ahead of them in others, but we can’t concede anything, anywhere. So everybody has to be pulling together in order for this overall marketing approach to work.
Do you have any particular goals concerning market share for GMs brands?
I do, but you would have to ask my boss about those.
I read an article well before the Super Bowl that said that GM was looking to do some product placements in commercials from other advertisers. Did that pan out, and are you continuing to pursue that idea?
That idea and a number of others are always in the mix, and we’re always trying to do those. They are more complicated, for sure, and take a lot of time. There are a number of things that we are looking to do long-term to tie ourselves with marketers that have similar objectives.
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