GM & the Implication of the Opposite

September 15, 2009


               Sometimes the harder you
try, the worse off you are. Why is that?

            Branding can sometimes
be like trying to pick up girls. It is not what you say that counts. But the
implication of what you say that counts.

            Asking a girl out for a
Saturday night date on a Thursday afternoon doesn’t say you like her. It says “I’m
desperate. Girls won’t go out with me.”

            There’s an important
principle here. It’s what we call the implication of the opposite. What you
say often implies exactly the opposite idea.

            When crafting their advertising
messages, too many marketers forget about this principle. As a result, while even
if they are telling the truth all they do is convince consumers of the

            Look at General Motor’s
new campaign and you’ll see what I mean.

            GM’s latest television
commercials with Chairman Ed Whitacre Jr. promotes a 60-day money-back guarantee
on the purchase on any new car or truck. Only a company that is desperate and unsure
of itself would do that. It’s no way to get a date or sell a car.

            GM thinks the money-back
guarantee says it believes so strongly in its cars that it is willing to give
you your money back if you’re not satisfied. But it is the opposite message that
gets delivered. We are so unsure of our products we’ll give you your money back.


            Money-back guarantees
have been around for a long time. And while they are very popular and many
companies have used them, I don’t think they are effective. If a money-back guarantee
was the key to success, almost every small company in America would be rolling
in dough.

            Check the yellow pages or
Google and you’ll see. Hundreds of companies use them to beg for business.

            A money-back guarantee says
there is nothing really special or different about your company or your
products. The way to be popular and get the girl is not by begging her to try
you out and promising to refund her movie money if she isn’t happy with the

                The way to be popular is by being the best football player, the best
tennis player, the best chess player, the best photographer, the best singer,
the best dancer or the best looking-guy in the crowd. In other words, by being
a leader in a category.

            The biggest problem with
GM is that they don’t lead in any category. Ford is the leading truck brand.
Toyota is the leading car brand. Lexus is the leading luxury car brand. BMW is
the leading driving car brand. Mercedes is the leading prestigious car brand.

            What is a Cadillac? What
is a Chevrolet? What is a Buick? What is a GMC? None of these brands lead in
anything nor do they stand for anything.

            Cadillac used to be a
very strong brand because it was the leading luxury-car brand. But no more. Cheap
Cadillac models like the Catera undermined its luxury position in the mind. Cadillac
used to outsell Mercedes, BMW and Lexus combined.

            Today, Cadillac is stuck
in fourth place. Here are the 2008 sales:

Lexus ……..……  260,087

BMW …………..  249,113

Mercedes …….  225,009

Cadillac ……..… 161,159


            Then there is Ed
Whitacre Jr. Who? Exactly. Nobody knows who this guy is. Sure, he ran AT&T
as Chairman and CEO for 17 years. But his Wikipedia page is smaller than mine.
Ed Whitacre Jr. is not a household name.

            CEO ads that work best
are the ones that feature a company founder like Dave Thomas for Wendy’s, John
Schnatter for Papa John’s or Frank Perdue for Perdue. Not a CEO who was just
appointed by the government.

            Apparently, the Ed
Whitacre Jr. ads were supposed to resemble the iconic Lee Iacocca ads of the
early 1980’s. GM was hoping that Ed do for GM, what Lee did Chrysler. I’ll give
you three reasons why this strategy will never work.


1. Lee Iacocca was a celebrity. Ed Whitacre Jr. is a nobody.

            Lee Iacocca was very
well known before being hired by Chrylser. Iacocca was closely associated with
the design and launch of the Mustang. During the Mustang launch at the 1964
World’s Fair, Iacocca appeared on the cover of many magazines including Time and Newsweek. Most people have
never heard of Ed Whitacre.


2. Lee Iacocca was a car
guy. Ed Whitacre Jr. is a phone guy.

            If you want to fix a car
company, why would you hire a phone guy? Only the government could think something
crazy like that. Iacocca was a car guy all his life. He spent 32 years at Ford and
wound up as President before being fired by Henry Ford II. When he arrived at
Chrysler, Iacocca brought many good ideas, many good executives and a deep
understanding of the industry. Ed Whitacre Jr. bought very little with him when
he arrived at GM.


3. Iacocca’s plan was
specific. Ed Whitacre Jr’s is not.

            What made the Iacocca ads
so powerful was not just him saying “If you can find a better car, buy it.” It
was the Iacocca talking about the new K-Car. The K-Car was the way for Americans
to beat the pump. The K-car was the first 6-passenger, efficient, front-wheel-drive
vehicle. And it sold like crazy. Soon after the K-Car, Iacocca followed with
the Minivan. And as they say, the rest is history. The success of these two
cars turned around the Chrysler Company.

            The Ed Whitacre Jr. ads
with talk about nothing specific, because GM has nothing specific to talk
about. Saying “May the Best Car Win” is laughable. If they really believed they
had the best cars, why would they need the buyback guarantee?

            If there was a best-car bookie
in Vegas, I’d bet it all on Toyota. GM is a suckers bet.