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GM Needs to Take a Page Out of Hyundai's Playbook

Thursday, 6 May 2010 | 11:32 AM ET

The hiring of former Hyundai marketing man Joel Ewanick to spearhead GM marketing is a shrewd move and shows that the folks running the country's largest automaker is realizing it can't wait around to improve sales. It needs to get people into the showroom. It needs to change perceptions. It needs to win over people who have said to friends, "I would never drive one of those cars."

Hyundai
Hyundai

In short, it needs to do what Hyundai has been doing the last two or three years.

That's why hiring Joel Ewanick makes so much sense. Ewanick was the architect of innovative promotions at Hyundai, like the Hyundai Assurance. I remember when he rolled that out, a GM executive scoffed at it as a gimmick. After all, how many people would even think about buying a new car if they thought they might lose their job and might need to return their car to automaker? He didn't get it. But car buyers certainly did. The Hyundai Advantage was never about taking back cars from people who lost their jobs. It was all about connecting with the public and saying, "we understand where you are in life."

That was the beauty of what Ewanick created at Hyundai. It made people who had previously dismissed the Korean car company take a look at what it was all about. It brought people into the showroom. It broke through the clutter of countless car ads (most of them forgettable) and got the attention of buyers. It's what Hyundai needed then. It's what GM needs now. Before you think I'm crazy, look at their situations.

As Hyundai did three years ago, GM now has a line-up of models with improving quality and top-notch design cues. The product is not the problem. But just like Hyundai three years ago, GM now lacks a marketing program that connects with buyers. And just as Hyundai saw sales surge once they got people into showrooms, many believe GM will see the same thing if it too can get more people in the front door.

For Hyundai the perception problem was a false belief the company made cheap cars. For GM the perception problem is that many people doubt that much has changed at the automaker. There's also a segment of the population that doesn't want to buy GM because it was bailed out by Uncle Sam and is still owned, in large part, by the federal government.

If Joel Ewanick can come up with an innovative marketing plan showing prospective buyers that GM is worth trying, the company should be able to close the deal. The cars and trucks aren't the problem.

It's just a matter of making people give them a shot.

I may just have to find that GM executive who scoffed at Hyundai back then and ask him how it feels to be stealing a page from the Korean car company. If he's smart, he'll see that this is a smart move.

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Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com

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  • Phil LeBeau is a CNBC auto and airline industry reporter based in the Chicago bureau and editor of the Behind the Wheel section on CNBC.com.

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