Jimmy Does Whistler: GMC Moves Up in the World

            Some people call them Environmental Assault Vehicles. Others can’t live without them. For General Motors Canada and Whistler/Blackcomb Resorts, they’re the perfect promotional vehicles.

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            They’re Sport Utility Vehicles, or SUVs. People love to complain about them–they block visibility, guzzle gas, take up two parking spaces. But British Columbians are active people. And in Vancouver, where people do golf and ski in the same day and kamikaze soccer moms run rampant, SUVs are must-haves.

            SUVs are the vehicles of the moment. Their 4×4 capability allows owners to go off-road (5% actually do; the rest go to the mall). They can handle different road and weather conditions, they’re flexible. SUVs are not cars–they’re trucks with car characteristics. And, in Vancouver, the sport utility market is 45% of the truck business; much higher than in other markets.

            Ten years ago, the sport utility vehicle market consisted pretty much of Range Rovers and Land Rovers, which were exclusive to the wealthy. Then there were the trucks and boxy 4x4s driven, in the main, by the blue collar crowd. Those who wanted more space drove station wagons. Then people tired of wagons and went to mini-vans. There’s nothing remotely cool about mini-vans; SUVs were the next logical step.

            The industry-wide transition–from van to SUV, from blue collar to white collar–began in 1993. It coincided with a rise in disposable income, an increase in the number of people having children and, in the case of BC, an increase in the number of vacations taken at home. At the same time, SUVs became more rounded and elegant in appearance. They were sold with embroidered or leather seats, state-of-the-art stereo systems, sun roofs, air conditioning, heated power windows, power steering, power brakes. They became large luxury cars.

            Despite ever-increasing awareness about environmental issues, sales of SUVs are booming–Ford now sells more trucks than cars. The small car market is still almost half the total car market and vans account for 30% of the truck market, but SUVs are taking over.

            However, by 1996, while everyone else’s SUVs were flying out of showrooms, sales of the GMC Jimmy had declined. It had an image problem.

            “At that time, the Jimmy design had been around for 18 months, which is a long time in a market that’s changing so rapidly,” explains Michelle Whelan, Account Supervisor at MacLaren McCann, General Motors’ long-time agency. “Maybe it was the design, maybe it was the blue collar image–for whatever reason, people didn’t see this truck as being what they wanted to buy. We wanted the Jimmy to be perceived as a high-end vehicle, increase awareness of its attributes and make it an aspirational brand.”

            So the Jimmy’s image needed a socioeconomic up-grade. What better way to achieve that than by tying it in with one of the world’s most socioeconomically exclusive activities–and one of BC’s most popular activities–skiing? Skiing, specifically, at Whistler/Blackcomb, North America’s top ski resort. To which, for the past ten years, GM has had the exclusive car manufacturer’s product placement rights.

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            The solution was stunningly simple. Beginning in September 1997, the ‘97 GMC Jimmy became available in a Whistler edition and a Blackcomb edition. Vehicle badging was created. The truck was outfitted with running boards, leather interiors, CD players and Thule ski racks. People who purchased the Jimmy received fleece jackets or vests with the Whistler/Blackcomb logo, as well as the Whistler/Blackcomb Express Card (for direct-lift, lower-cost skiing on a debit basis). As promotions go, it was not terrifically complicated, either to understand or execute, but it was a tremendous success.

            “It was very straightforward,” continues Whelan. “The SUV market is growing very quickly in BC, more so than in the rest of the country. The need was already there; it was just a matter of getting consumer attention and communicating the Jimmy’s benefits.”

            With a budget of $300,000., MacLaren conducted a province-wide newspaper campaign. In the Lower Mainland only, the promotion was advertised on radio and TV, plus on billboards and through traffic report sponsorship on Mountain FM. In addition, the agency obtained the Whistler/Blackcomb data base and a direct mail piece was sent to all Express Card and season ticket holders. The target market was the 30-50 age group with earnings of $35,000.-$40,000. And while this was going on, there were Jimmys parked at the base of Blackcomb and in Whistler village; every time someone walked by and triggered it, an automated tape touted the vehicle’s benefits.

            The promotion’s effectiveness was quickly apparent–sales of the Jimmy went up 38%, or just under two market share points. So last year, the promotion was repeated. But GM has other vehicles serving this market segment–the Yukon and the Suburban. So last September, the promo included the three vehicles and used the same strategy. Jimmy sales went up 40% in September, 69% in October, 43% in November and 149% in December. Yukon sales went up 15.3%, Suburban sales 47%; with respective share climbs of 3 and 4.8 points. The whole GMC target group has changed; the blue collar image is gone.

            Which is not to say that an entire market segment has been shut out. It’s true that SUVs are expensive and if you have to worry about the cost of fuel you can’t afford one. The hottest category of SUVs is the mid-size–the GMC Jimmy, Ford Explorer, Chrysler Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner and the Nissan Pathfinder. Those run in the $44,000. range. The large size SUV is increasingly lucrative; this is where you find the GMC Yukon and Ford Expedition ($48,000.) and the GMC Suburban and GMC Tahoe ($52,000.). However, with $4,300. down, you can lease a Jimmy for $338. a month which, obviously, was a figure which appealed to British Columbians in various income groups. And the benefits of the Jimmy were communicated in such a way that it increased the purchase intent of those who, in a market already favourably disposed toward an SUV, were thinking of buying one.

            The decision to buy a vehicle involves a six-month purchase funnel. When a consumer decides to buy a new car, he will spend two months looking at different makes and deciding what type of vehicle he wants–a mid-sized car, an SUV etc. Over the next two months, he’ll narrow his choices; he knows what type of car he wants, now he has a short list. In the fifth month, he will further narrow his choices and decide on the style he needs; in the sixth, he makes his final decision based on price and options.

            For manufacturers, image advertising–particularly in print and television–captures the attention of the purchaser in the first five months of the funnel. It’s the promotions, packaging and pricing which catch the buyer in the last month–this is how the manufacturer moves up on the buyer’s list and affects purchase intent.

            The creative strategy for the Jimmy promotion was simply to create an aspirational vehicle image and move that image higher up on the purchase funnel. Experience and focus group testing showed that the best approach was the straightforward one–no dancing girls, no silly humour.

            “We just showed the vehicle in the mountain setting,” says Whelan. “The image told people that this vehicle offered a way to have the freedom to get out of the city on week-ends. It showed the truck in the mountain environment and created the outdoor connection in people’s minds. The copy provided the straight facts.”

            “We want our creative to be tasteful,” says Brian Webber, Zone Marketing Manager for GM BC. “We want to communicate specific information and we don’t want clutter. People who buy these vehicles are sophisticated; they know what they want and they want you to cut to the chase–state the features and benefits, the price, the lease payment, the down payment.

            “In our campaigns, we use outdoor extensively to show the look of the vehicle. Print advertising is the primary source of information–what it is, how much it is, where to go and get it. At the point where this promotion appeals to the consumer, he’s already going to buy an SUV and you just have to tell him why he should buy yours. He’s done his homework, you make him an offer.”

            The success of this promotion is clearly indicated by the fact that people are still asking for the Whistler and Blackcomb editions, even though last season’s advertising stopped in January. Not all Jimmys have the badging, but that hasn’t hurt sales. The attributes and image of the GM vehicles, and their association with the glamour and excitement of Whistler, have made such an impression on people that they’re buying them anyway.

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            “The image of Whistler/Blackcomb means different things to different people,” says Mark Woodburn, General Manager of Business Development for Whistler/Blackcomb Mountain Resorts. “People in BC are proud that the leading ski resort on the continent is in their back yards. Some feel a sense of ownership. Others want to communicate that they’re alpine enthusiasts and part of mountain culture. In some people’s minds, there’s a certain stature associated with that. That’s part of our brand equity and GM’s use of that equity altered how their vehicle was perceived. It helped stimulate test drives and sales, significantly affect its market share and exceed sales targets. We’re glad that we helped a partner and enhanced our own brand awareness at the same time.”

            Woodburn couldn’t be happier with the GM promotion–for the price of the give-away merchandise, Whistler/Blackcomb has been able to expand its relationship with GM outside of the resort and, in the process, advertise itself.

            “It’s always a struggle for us, as we go through the winter, to remind people in the Lower Mainland that Whistler/Blackcomb does not suffer the same rainfall that the Lower Mainland does. We need to get in people’s faces as often as we can and this way a great way to do that. The fact that our logo was on the back of a high-quality 4×4 vehicle communicates the nature of Whistler and continues with the culture that people enjoy here. The displays in show rooms, the direct mail campaigns, the advertising–it all helped us. But the greatest value to us was having the logo on the back of the vehicles. Someone’s sitting at a red light staring at our logo on the vehicle in front of him, he thinks of his experience here, it elicits fond memories and stimulates another visit.

            “This was a unique opportunity because it’s not very often that you get to put your name on a product manufactured by someone else–especially one with such a high profile. GM used our brand to strengthen its business, we used its vehicles to strengthen our brand. It’s a classic example of partners borrowing equity from each other. And its simplicity is the reason for its success. Obviously, GM makes great vehicles and they’re attractive to anybody looking for something in that category. But being able to tie the vehicles’ connection with this place and its activities, and to the emotional connection that British Columbians have with Whistler, gives GM an edge which its competitors don’t have. It is a win-win situation all around.”

Blitz Magazine, September 1999

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On Automobiles, Advertising & Talking to Americans

Blitz Magazine, January 2003

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I’m sitting in traffic, in my Mustang. We’re not going anywhere and I have no idea why. Because I can’t see a thing. I am surrounded by SUVs. And I start to think about how gullible people are. We know that, in an accident, an SUV is 30% more likely to roll and 25% more likely to kill the other driver. We know that, by virtue of their size, SUVs increase traffic volume, thereby increasing the amount of time vehicles are on the road, thus the amount of fuel burned. We know that SUVs burn more fuel individually, and that they cost more to insure. Yet people keep buying them.

I prefer the European attitude toward automobiles. They’re mere appliances, made of steel and plastic and rubber and fibre. Their purpose is to get people from point A to point B, in a safe and efficient manner, with some speed and a little fun thrown in. If you look at any European street, it’s clear that people there don’t care about dents and scratches, or dust and mud. I have an English friend who drives an old Bentley. It makes strange sounds, smells of cigars and is usually full of damp dogs, but it’s fuel-efficient and there’s no point in fixing something that ain’t broke. Over there, people like nice cars, but cars are by no means the status symbols that they are on this side of the pond.

In North America, automobile advertising has people believing that, without an SUV, people might not be able to drive up mountains—as many of us so often have to. Worse, advertising has people believing that SUVs are safe, and that they’re essential for good parenting. That a huge van with a built-in entertainment system is a must for childhood happiness, or that the ability to reconfigure seating will keep kids from fighting. I spend $80 a month on gas, which is barely enough to get the average SUV-wielding soccer mom to and from Wal-Mart. In fact, the money that parents spend on these contraptions each year far exceeds the annual tuition at most private schools.

The other message being swallowed is speed. (I should admit here that speed has always been a problem for me. In fact, I flunked my first driving test by going over the speed limit.) But, in Vancouver as, I’m sure, in other cities, speed has become an increasingly deadly problem.

On the one hand, there’s a huge population of recent yuppies who are too busy to drive their teen-agers anywhere. It’s a lot easier just to buy them their own high-performance cars—and trust them. On the other hand, Vancouver has a huge population of Asian immigrants. These people work hard and prosper in their new county, and they want to give their kids (especially their sons) everything their hearts desire. And they’re new to the culture, so they’re finding their way through that culture’s media.

In both cases, if the family prize wants the newest, fastest car on the lot? No problem! ‘Course, he could end up blind, paralyzed, dead or in jail… Recently, in a Vancouver suburb, road-racing teens snuffed out the life of a 30 year-old RCMP officer. This week, the officer’s parents (also Asian immigrants) were on the news—he was their only child and the item was on how they’re working with local government to stop road racing. The broadcast then went to commercial—it was a spot from Subaru, about its newest, fastest car. It’s ‘rally-proven!’

So now the question is, how socially responsible will advertisers be forced to become? We can’t advertise tobacco. We can’t show anyone drinking liquor. There are strict rules governing promotion of those products and only hypocrites can support those rules while claiming that the Zoom Zoom Zoom commercials don’t contribute to dangerous behaviour.

Obesity is a huge problem among North America’s youth, with a thoroughly preventable disorder saddling millions of kids with diabetes and heart disease. What’s this going to do to the rules of advertising for McDonald’s? Coca Cola? Chips, pop, doughnuts? Candy, chocolate bars? Pizza? Or those fat-packed, salt-soaked pre-made meals people keep buying?

We know that one cause of obesity is a sedentary lifestyle. What’s going to happen to the marketing of video games? Computers? And now Canada has ratified the Kyoto Accord and we are committed to reducing greenhouse gases. What’s going to happen to that automobile advertising? I have no answers here—but I do know that the future of marketing is going to be very interesting.

The whole Kyoto storm was another amusement. There’s Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, touting the oil industry line that cutting greenhouse gases is going to cost thousands of jobs and all kinds of money. Meanwhile, the precious Alberta beef industry depends (duh) on climate. Following the worst drought in the memory of every farming community on the Canadian prairies (the ‘bread-basket of the world’), Alberta farmers were shipping their cows to slaughter and entering lotteries in which the prizes were rail car-loads of moldy hay.

BC Premier Gordon Campbell took the same position as Klein. But Vancouver and its environs are now legally committed to bidding on the 2010 Winter Olympics. I’m writing this on December 16th. Vancouver’s famed winter rain arrived last week—two months late. I have a garden full of flowers, and the local mountains have yet to see a snowflake. Let’s hope that Whistler/Blackcomb can make enough snow by the time the Olympic Selection Committee gets here.

In the US, it’s ‘Global warming? What global warming?’ Rising sea levels are causing the United States to physically, and rapidly, shrink. Inestimable damage is done every year by increasingly intense storms, and American farmers are no happier than Canadian farmers. Cross-border smog has created an epidemic of asthma among Ontario children; in summer, from the sky, Toronto is barely visible. There are pockets of Texas where up to 40% of the population suffers from respiratory ailments and cancer is rampant. Ah, yes, Texas. Home of the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

There’s little doubt that, when Jean Chretien’s communications director called George Bush a ‘moron’, it was one helluva PR gaff—even though she was telling the truth. But it made me recall a famous quote by Barbara Bush. It took place at a party celebrating Dubya’s first Texas gubernatorial election. Babs, not realizing that there was a journalist behind her, reportedly turned to her daughter and said: “Can you believe this?”

If a guy’s mother doesn’t think he should be in public office, he shouldn’t be in public office. But Babs raised Dubya to do what he’s told, and he’s doing it. Texas industry put him in power and the result if now evident there. American industry put him in national power and the damage is evident everywhere else. Two years of this guy and the world is a disaster. Last night, Al Gore announced that he won’t run in the next presidential election; I get the feeling that he thinks he might not be able to fix things. On the same broadcast of 60 Minutes, Donald Rumsfeld was shown telling Steve Croft that the war on Iraq has ‘Nothing to do with oil. Nothing whatsoever’.

He’s lying. And everyone knows he’s lying. Senior US cabinet officials are popping up all over the place, doing as many interviews as they possibly can, trying to sell a war that has no credible basis. It’s gone past the point of ridiculousness to the point of comedy. Every day, there are reports that UN weapons inspectors have found nothing, and that they have unfettered access to suspected sites. And, almost every day, the British or American PR machines come out with a ‘new’ piece of ‘evidence’. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘We’ve had this evidence for years—we just didn’t tell anyone.’ Who do they think they’re kidding?

Anyway, what set me off on this tangent is a 60-minute re-run of Rick Mercer’s Talking to Americans. At one time one of the funniest concepts on TV, watching it became one depressing experience. As you’ll recall, Mercer would ask Americans to comment on outrageously stupid ideas. So we see Americans congratulating Canada on legalizing insulin and staplers, the completion of 800 miles of paved road, getting a second area code and becoming part of North America. ‘Hysterically funny.

Then a professor at Columbia University signs a petition against placing Canadian senior citizens adrift on ice floes. A professor at Harvard, after proudly proclaiming that he received tenure in 1965, agrees that Irish-Canadians should be allowed to vote. A professor at Boston College considers the merits of Canada’s honouring of its treaty with Chief Gordon Lightfoot and allowing an annual rhino hunt. A professor at Stanford concurs with the notion of sending ground troops into Saskatchewan. And the governor of Arkansas congratulates Canada on getting FM radio. And they’re all serious.

When these spots first aired, Bill Clinton was president of the United States. If the American media had been less obsessed with his sex life, the world may be in better shape today; he recently told David Letterman that all of ‘that’ definitely distracted his administration from the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which began in the early ‘90s.

There was never any doubt about Clinton’s intellect. The guy is probably a genius. And when someone that sharp is running the show, other types of ignorance can be funny.

Now, ignorance is as deadly as any other weapon. And the Leader of the Free World (shudder here) is a dimwit. His ignorance is a staple on Saturday Night Live. It is commonly discussed on the late night talk shows. It’s now mentioned by mainstream journalists, as if it’s OK. But it’s not OK. While one can occasionally see a dim flicker of understanding in those tiny little eyes, there’s little doubt that he’s not the one running show. He’s being handled. Who by? Who knows? PR experts certainly, but who are they and what agenda do they have?

 My thoughts return, again, to how gullible people are. Americans in particular. There should have been massive protest, even civil disobedience, when Bush was elected in the shadiest of shady elections. There wasn’t. Texans voted for the guy because he likes to talk tough—they love that ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ mantra. Just a few months ago, Americans had a chance to reduce the number of Republicans in office, reduce Bush’s power and damage his chances for re-election. Yet barely 25% of them turned out to vote.

My conclusion is that North Americans have adopted the mentality of sheep. If it’s advertised, buy it. If a politician says it, it must be true. If it’s in the papers, it’s gotta’ be real. Perhaps this mentality is not new, but it’s never been more unhealthy, more damaging, or more dangerous. And what we all want—what we all absolutely need—is for everyone to start telling the truth.