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GM turns to its old product meister for a new marketing message

Mon, 13 Jul 2009

It has taken years of effort--and a swift trip through U.S. Bankruptcy Court--but General Motors is finally close to its goal. It has shed billions of dollars in legacy costs, fixed quality and improved design.

Now one hurdle remains: getting customers to notice.

To do that, GM has transformed 77-year-old product czar Bob Lutz into its new marketing and advertising guru.

"I have always been a vocal critic of much of the [advertising] that we do," Lutz said. "Maybe one of the reasons I got the job was, 'OK, you don't like it, you fix it.' "

Lutz says he will put design and products at the center of the marketing message. He's done this kind of thing before. Earlier in his career while at BMW in Germany, Lutz hired the U.S. agency that devised the slogan "The Ultimate Driving Machine."

The tagline won high marks for deftly selling the essence of BMW's cars.

But while Lutz has gained vast marketing experience in his long auto career, he is untested in the tricky new marketing world of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other Internet media popular with computer-savvy youth.

"We're going to shift resources," Lutz says. "We're going to have design have a powerful influence on public relations and advertising and vice versa.

It's really going to be, for the first time, an integrated communications approach. It's new and it's necessary."

Last week, as part of GM's emergence from Bankruptcy Court, Lutz was named vice chairman with a broad portfolio: marketing, advertising and communications, with input on product design.

GM will take a much more aggressive stance in communications and be "less worried about, 'Gee, what is somebody going to think?' " Lutz says. "We're going to go from being very defensive and risk-averse in communications to where we're going to be much bolder in getting our story out."

Hold that retirement

Lutz was planning to retire by year end. But after recovering from back surgery this spring, he reconsidered and wanted to stay on, says GM CEO Fritz Henderson.

But Lutz admits he did not want his old job back as global product chief--since filled by Tom Stephens, former head of GM Powertrain.

Henderson and Lutz conceived of his new job together, Henderson says. He wanted Lutz to manage the creative aspects of the company.

Henderson says GM's marketing was not conveying the quality message of GM's products. Since March 2005, GM had assigned marketing to Mark LaNeve, vice president of vehicle sales, service and marketing.

Henderson was vague about LaNeve's future at GM. On Friday, Henderson said LaNeve heads GM's sales "today" but indicated that GM has many executive changes to make in the next few weeks.

Henderson will take charge of GM's sales operations in North America.

Lutz's frustration

At the press event last week, Lutz was openly critical of GM's advertising.

For instance, he implied that he disliked Buick's new spots for the Enclave crossover and LaCrosse sedan.

Asked what he didn't like, Lutz was rushed off by his public relations handler, leaving Lutz to say, "I think I need to move on."

Lutz planned to meet with Buick's head, Susan Docherty, on July 14 to discuss the brand's upcoming advertising campaigns. She says Buick's ad agency, Leo Burnett, is not up for review.

Lutz's frustration with advertising stems partly from years of developing new products that fail to sell well. For example, GM had hoped to sell at least 100,000 Saturn Auras a year. But last year, Saturn sold only 59,380 Auras.

In 1974, Lutz put BMW's U.S. advertising account up for review and ultimately chose the upstart firm of Ammirati and Puris to create a new campaign.

The agency came up with the tag line: "The Ultimate Driving Machine." On Monday, Lutz plans to meet with his new team to go over how GM can immediately start improving its marketing and public messages.

One main challenge he sees is changing the perception of buyers on the East and West coasts, where imports are strong.

Says Lutz: "If I knew today how we're going to crack those markets, I probably would have done it yesterday."

By Jamie LaReau- Automotive News