Categories: Case StudiesLaura

GM & the Implication of the Opposite


               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.

Laura Ries :

View Comments (10)

  • Hey Laura, I just stopped at your very first sentence because it's a good one. Why is it the harder yoiu try the less love you receive? Because when you try that hard you come off as desperate. This is an old sales adage. For example, I walk into a bar with my friends. We are surrounded by 100 girls and all we do is stare at them all night. Every one of those girls is going to think we are creeps. However, if we walk into that bar, have a good time and completely ignore the fact that we are surrounded by 100 women some of those women are going to find us interesting. Now "The Law of Averages" can go to work for you. That means that out of 100 girls 10 are going to find us interesting, 8 will dance with us and 1-3 will be interested in continuing a relationship. 1-3 out of 10 ain't bad. Of people in that target audience 1-3 girls represent a 10 - 30 share of the market and those numbers will make just about anyone successful in their business. Another way of looking at this is to ask, "how successful are most people at turning "nos" into "yeses"?" The answer is "not many". GM is trying too hard to impress the girls and turn those nos into yeses. Mind if I talk about this on MADISON AVENUE? I've got to get readers linked back to your post! Thanks Laura! Now back to finish the resy of your post... ... ... ... ... right on. I couldn't (well, I can) agree with you more.

  • So right Martin. As a girl that used to go to bars to look for guys, I remember. But as you say, it also applies to so much more. Stuff on sale is never believed to be as good as the stuff at full price. People might buy it but they don't think it is as valuable.
    Sent from my BlackBerry

  • Great post. Having the media tell your story for you in a way that conveys your positioning is the ultimate!

  • But how about those guys selling e-books online? They always offer money-back guarantee because they said they are so sure that their e-book is good stuff, we won't be asking for our money back. Seems to work for them. Or could that just be my own perception because from where I come from, Singapore, I don't see that many money-back guarantees around, so it did seem more reassuring.

  • You couldn't be more wrong.
    Spoken like a guy that has never in his life had real P&L responsibility. It's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback when you don't have any of your own money on the line.
    And all the sycophantic agreement is a testament to how much your industry has it's collective head up it's a**.

  • "Money back guaranteed” doesn't convey desperation above and beyond anything we already know about GM. GM is in a desperate situation brand-wise and everyone knows it. Not that they’re going bankrupt- the government bailed them out; just that they stand for nothing and have little to no brand appeal. Someone who purchases a GM vehicle, obviously doesn’t care about GM’s poor image, they moved beyond that. They are the types that are likely to read “Consumers Report” and make more logical car buying decisions rather than emotional ones. Nuts and bolts type advertising appeals well to this segment and items like "OnStar" and “money back guaranteed” helps them feel secure in their decision to drive a GM vehicle. It gives GM 1-up in comparison shopping. It also allows people a prolonged test drive, thinking they can return it if they're not happy.
    Your take on this Ed Whitacre Jr guy vs. Lee Iacocca is right on. GM seems so unfocused and out of touch, it’s remarkable.

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  • I think the world would still love the brash car guy. That picture of Lee Iacoca reminds me of a disco-era Steve Jobs. One of the big 3 american car companies should do an apple - where they focus their car lines, try to figure out a couple of niches, and surprise and delight them every year, and build from there. There aren't that many american cars over here in Europe anymore, but every time i sit in one I'm pleasantly surprised. They're sturdy, comfortable, built for tall people and offer surprising value for money. The problem is that they're just not cool. The only kinds of american cars that hold any sex appeal are pickup trucks and other trucks (for a relatively small crowd) , and vintage cars. The PT Cruiser is the most comfortable car I've ever sat in but it's a laughing stock, a symbol of how out of touch the US car industry is.
    I think that the american car industry is still rife with innovation, like apple six months before jobs came back. The problem is probably more with organization and presentation. But that can be fixed, if you find the right leader/s.