Bankruptcy Gives GM Clean Slate, But Not With Consumers

General Motors' Chapter 11 filing may provide it with a clean slate as far as its finances go, but consumers will not be as forgiving as a bankruptcy court judge.

A Chevrolet dealership in Loveland, Colorado.
David Zalubowski
A Chevrolet dealership in Loveland, Colorado.

Once GM owned brands that could replace the ideal of motherhood in slogans — "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and...Chevrolet."

Now, the company has a daunting task ahead of it. It must restore consumer confidence and create brand imaginery that will make its vehicles the kind that consumers must own.

"It's our job to convince the public that they can believe in General Motors," CEO Fritz Henderson says in an interview with CNBC hours after the company filed for bankruptcy protection.

"I'm a believer that results are what really counts, and we need to post the results," he says. "...We want the American taxpayer to consider our products, to give us the benefit of the doubt, and then it's our job to deliver the results so that their confidence in us is both proven and restored."

  • Video: CNBC Interviews GM CEO Fritz Henderson

Plenty of folks are speculating about what GM will need to do to get there. Advertising Age spoke with a panel advertising executives about how they would pitch the GM account. Among the ideas they discussed is shedding brands such as Pontiac and Saab in order to focus on stronger brands like Cadillac and Chevy.

They even traded taglines:

"Obama is my co-pilot," quipped John Coleman, CEO of The Via Group.

"GM. Your tax dollars at work," joked Tom Sullivan, president of Vitro Robertson.

"You bought the company, why not own the car?" suggested Courtney Buechert, president of Eleven.

Ok, all kidding aside, several panel members suggested taglines that harkened back to the images of Americana that has worked for the company in the past such as "GM. American. Reinvented." from Sullivan or "Our GM" from Buechert.

But more than taglines, they talked about the need to retool GM's divisions and return their focus back to making vehicles that are more closely tied to their strongest identity traits, instead of trying to have each brand be all things to all people. For example, Cadillac's brand is about luxury. And that's what its vehicles and advertising should focus on.

Meanwhile, consumers also are trying to make sense of what the GM bankruptcy means for them, and that's not going to help auto sales in the short term.

Some people are speculating that the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler will ultimately mean higher sticker prices and there will be fewer cars produced and fewer dealerships available to sell them. But perhaps the sales model will morph and retailers like Costco or Wal-Mart will begin selling cars.

As this type of speculation continues in the months to come, GM's bankruptcy actually may help it because it does give it a fresh start.

Bert Cleveland, creative director at McKee Wallwork Cleveland told Ad Age that he would pitch a strategy of brutual honesty.

"It would tell consumers, 'We have a new attitude,'" he was quoted as saying. "We have to earn your trust and your loyalty again.'"

And looking at the comments from GM today, that may be the tact they are taking. As Henderson said in a news conference:

"The GM that many of you knew, the GM that let too many of you down, is history."

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