Who is that Guy and Why Should I Care?

During a commercial break between the games I was watching (bouncing between football and baseball) an ad caught my eye. Not because it was particularly well done or funny. I watched a guy in a suit walking around talking about car stuff (clearly I wasn’t paying too close attention), and I wondered, “Who is this guy?” It had something to do with GM and a new 60-day guarantee. Then it was back to my regularly scheduled programming. I didn’t think much of it until I was zipping through the various newsletters I get and found a story by AP marketing writer, Emily Fredrix titled, “Ad World Unimpressed With GM Campaign.”


Aha! So THAT’s the new CEO at GM, Ed Whitacre, the former CEO and chairman of AT&T.  Sure, telecom to autos… that makes sense (?) to have him be the front man in an ad campaign.

I guess I wasn’t the only one puzzled about the decision. The article quoted AdWeek’s Barbara Lippert saying, “Does he think that viewers will look up and say, “Who is he? Oh right, yes, yes, yes. He’s that former AT&T executive who announced he knew nothing about cars. Let’s see what he has to say!”

Laura Ries, president of marketing consulting firm Ries & Ries, said, “You have a huge, iconic company. If you were going to put someone on it, they better be someone people know and trust. And this is a guy nobody knows, and when you don’t know them, you don’t trust.”

penske_nytShe’s got point. Which brings me to another auto-related story. This one has to do with Saturn. Formerly part of GM, it was acquired by the Penske Automotive Group. Headed by Roger Penske, who The New York Times referred to as “Mr. Fix-It ,” Saturn is expected to be re-birthed as an independent chain of dealerships.

Penske has an amazing track record within the auto industry — succeeding where corporate giants have failed.

“He turned around truck leasing for Hertz, revived General Motors’ diesel-engine operations, and gave new life to Daimler’s micro-car franchise, Smart. And when his struggling hometown, Detroit, had to make sure that Super Bowl XL went off without a hitch in 2006, the city turned to Mr. Penske to run it. Now, at age 72, the silver-haired former race car driver is about to take on the ultimate problem child of the auto industry – G.M.’s Saturn division.”

The Times article does a great job explaining why Penske is uniquely qualified to pull it off. It talked about the business model Penske used for the Smart car and how that could be applied to Saturn: “With Smart, Mr. Penske assumed control of all aspects of sales, marketing and service, and contracted with Daimler only for production of the cars.”

It also noted how analysts believe Penske will make more money selling parts and service for millions of Saturn cars already on the road.

Humm… I’m sold. Seems like Mr. Fix-it would be an ideal (and more credible) spokesperson. But first thing’s first.

Keep your eyes on Penske.  As for Whitacre, we can only hope his time as ad man is as short lived as the Bill Gates/Jerry Seinfeld ads.


Updated on 30 September 2009 —According to a story just posted at WSJ.com, General Motors said it would close its Saturn operation after Penske Automotive Group ended its effort to acquire the brand.

Penske Auto, which runs a network of U.S. auto dealers, said an agreement to source cars for sale under the Saturn brand after GM ceased production had been rejected by its prospective manufacturing partner, which people familiar with the situation identified as Renault SA of France.

Comment: This is disappointing.  It would have been interesting to see how Roger Penske did with Saturn.  Then again, if he pulled the plug, there probably was a darn good reason.


The Whitacre GM ad…

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