“I get it. A lot of people don't like GM because: 1) the bailout, or 1a) Obama; or 2) the United Auto Workers; or 3) because some Monte Carlo or Cutlass Sierra or deuce-and-a-quarter left them walking a long time ago. That's understandable. These are sour times. But for the moment, we should suspend our rancor and savor a little American pride. A bunch of Midwestern engineers in bad haircuts and cheap wristwatches just out-engineered every other car company on the planet. And they did it in 29 months while the company they worked for was falling apart around them. That was downright heroic. Somebody ought to make a movie,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning WSJ Reporter Dan Neil.
It’s clear General Motors’ Volt Communications team had their work cut out for them in the months leading up to the launch of the Chevrolet Volt in December 2011. They developed an integrated marketing approach to establish Volt as a technology leader, increase consumer consideration for the Chevrolet brand, and make the Volt “real” and relevant to consumers. Their approach included grassroots consumer events, social media interaction, employee involvement and media engagement.
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITY
The Volt Communications team faced a number of challenges in preparing for the launch of the Chevrolet Volt in December 2010. Some were legacy issues, such as the specter of the company’s previous electric vehicle program, the EV-1, which was cancelled in 2002. General Motors filed bankruptcy in 2009 and received substantial aid from the U.S. and Canadian governments– a fact that was viewed negatively by many members of the car-buying public. These issues impacted the image of General Motors and its products, especially the Volt which became the symbol of political pundits who opposed the company’s bailout.
Additionally, the Volt Communications team faced the challenge of marketing an all-new technology to the American public. The Volt distinguishes itself from other electric-only vehicles by offering extended-range capability. It can drive up to 40 miles on electricity without using gasoline or producing tailpipe emissions. When the Volt’s lithium-ion battery is depleted of energy, a gas-powered engine-generator seamlessly operates to extend the total driving range to over 375 miles before refueling or stopping to recharge the battery.
Additionally, a limited number of vehicles were scheduled for production during 2010. This meant a limited supply of products were available for media and consumers to experience driving an electric vehicle. The Communications team needed to find ways to tell the Volt story without the vehicle and to plan driving events that would have a high impact.
According to a 2006 Maritz Research study, understanding on the part of consumers about electric vehicles was extremely low. Awareness of electric-only vehicles was at 8 percent; flex-fuel vehicles at 12 percent and gasoline-electric hybrids at 15 percent.
The Volt Communications team integrated marketing, public relations, employee communications and social media in achieving the vehicle’s key objectives: Establishing the Volt as a technology leader, increasing consideration for the Chevrolet brand, and making the Volt real and relevant to consumers.
Among the key activities executed over the course of 2010, leading up to the market launch of the Volt, were:
• Over 180 journalists participated in a two-day Volt media briefing which featured unprecedented access to key engineering and manufacturing facilities and over 200 miles of driving.
• Various social platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, and corporate websites, were used to engage media and consumers in discussions about the Volt’s technology such as batteries, electric motors, and the in-home charging experience.
• Webchats were an integral part of the campaign, as they enabled dialogue and discussion between consumers and media and the Volt engineers. These allowed interested parties the opportunity to understand not only the technology, but also the strategy behind the Volt’s development. By providing direct access to engineers, the team was also able to provide a face to the project and the company.
• The social aspect of the launch hit its height during the three key drive events:
o Freedom Drive, a three-day, 1,776-mile drive from Austin to New York City over the July 4 holiday which demonstrated the Volt’s extended-range capability and an important competitive advantage when compared to primary competitive products.
o Volt Unplugged Tour, a 12-city tour that covered 4,124 miles and visited more than a dozen cities including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC and New York City
o South by Southwest, an annual music, film and interactive festival in Austin, Texas during which the Volt team provided over 500 drives to key influential bloggers in town for the event.
• Private drive events for influencers, electric vehicle enthusiasts and advocates were held
• Because third-party credibility is key to the car-buying experience, the Volt team launched an intense awareness campaign with key publications offering awards (such as Motor Trend).
• Employees drove the Volt at ride & drive events at GM campuses. Product information, as well as daily Volt news (including TV commercials as they were released), was covered on the company intranet.
• U.S. President Barack Obama visited the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant in July. During his visit, he thanked employees for their role in producing the Chevrolet Volt and even drove a Volt – the first vehicle he’d driven since becoming president.
• An employee recognition event in November celebrated the Volt’s journey and start of production at the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant. Included were Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, local government officials and dignitaries as well as UAW leaders and employees. The event was broadcast live throughout GM’s North America operations.
• The first Volt for retail sale was auctioned for $225,000 after a two-week buzz building campaign. The proceeds of the auction benefitted the Detroit Public Schools Foundation.
GM believes the Chevrolet Volt may be the most awarded vehicle around, earning dozens of technological and environmental awards already. Among the list:
• 2011 North American Car of the Year • 2011 Car and Driver 10Best
• 2011 Motor Trend Car of the Year • 2011 Ward’s AutoWorld 10 Best Engines
• 2011 AUTOMOBILE Magazine Automobile of the Year • 2010 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award
• 2011 Green Car Journal Green Car of the Year • 2010 Popular Science “Best of What’s New”
• Those familiar with the Chevrolet Volt had a higher opinion and consideration for the Chevrolet brand overall (50%) and were significantly more likely to say Chevrolet is fuel efficient, technologically innovative, and environmentally friendly, according to an internal study conducted in September 2010.
• Consumer familiarity with the Volt was higher than its nearest competitor, the Nissan Leaf, which also launched in 2010. Forty-two (42) percent of respondents surveyed were at least “somewhat familiar” with Volt, versus 22% for the Leaf.
• The list of registered Volt enthusiasts grew from 40,000 in May 2010 to nearly 250,000 by December 2010
Real & Relevant to Consumers
• The Chevrolet Volt captured approximately 5 billion media impressions in 2010.
• Registered Chevrolet Volt enthusiasts increased from 20,000 to nearly 250,000.
• Chevrolet Volt nameplate garnered the most media coverage of any automobile in three of the past four years – the majority of which came without extensive access to the final product.
• More than 6,300 consumers participated in Volt ride and drive activities
• The Chevrolet VoltAge.com website has more than 1.1 million views