Steering A Global Brand At General Motors

Author

Kimberly A. Whitler, Contributor

November 17, 2015

Cars are a girl’s/man’s best friend. Not diamonds. Or furs. For some of us, we love cars (ok, cars are right after dogs, but cars are still ahead of jewelry and clothes). As I mentioned in a previous article (see article on Buick’s turnaround here) where I interviewed the head of marketing for Buick/GMC, I deliberate more on cars than houses or jewelry or appliances or hair dressers.

For people like me, the opportunity to actually market cars would be the best possible adventure. And so I was fascinated to talk with Tim Mahoney, the CMO, Global Chevrolet and Global Marketing Operations Leader at GM, to find out if reality lived up to the romantic vision of what it would be like to lead marketing at a car company. Mahoney has worked at a variety of different auto manufacturers and has tremendous insight into the challenges associated with steering a global brand. What follows are excerpts from the interview.

Kimberly Whitler: That is quite a long title. Can you talk a little about your current role and responsibility and how you are measured?

Tim Mahoney: I wear two hats. The first hat is that of Global CMO, Chevrolet – a brand operating in 115 countries around the world. The second hat I wear is as the head of a GM marketing operations – a service organization that supports the entire GM enterprise. The first role is aligned by brand; the second role is primarily designed to drive efficiency across marketing-related activities that sit behind the curtain out of site of the consumer. In the operations role, my team manages branded entertainment, media, diversity, diversity, licensing, auto shows and other activities that are most efficiently led at the enterprise, rather than brand, level.

How am I measured? For the Global Chevy role, I have a balanced scorecard that is comprised of measures such as brand health including conquest and loyalty plus there are typically targets across product and regions. For the operations role, I have a variety of KPIs, including: media efficiency, media effectiveness, and qualitative measures around the auto shows, etc. For some areas, like diversity, the measures tend to be more qualitative and determined on a project-by-project basis.  For other areas like licensing, I’m measured on more of a P&L basis. The breadth of my responsibility means that I have a variety of measures that range from specific targets to more qualitative assessments. On top of it, my compensation is largely tied to financial and customer performance (loyalty, satisfaction).

Whitler: What is the biggest “challenge” you’ve had as a CMO?

Mahoney: When you migrate from being a regional to a global marketing leader, the transition can be challenging.  One of the biggest challenges I’ve had is steering a global brand like Chevrolet and making sure the brand is both relevant and consistent across the 115 countries where we operate. This is a balancing act because you want to be as consistent as possible while also being locally relevant. And so knowing when to shift between the two is critically important. A lot of companies are dogmatic about brand consistency and while they sell their brand everywhere, they don’t optimize sales everywhere because they lose relevance in the local markets. On the other side, brands that allow too much local adaption start to become unrecognizable as you move from country to country.

Whitler: How do you walk the global-local tightrope?

Mahoney: I’ll explain our brand architecture and this might make more sense. We start with a simple human truth (people are looking for a meaningful life) and a strong brand belief (anything is possible); two perspectives that tend to cut across cultures. The brand point of view is steeped in a promise that is essentially human and therefore can mean the same thing but be interpreted through local execution.

The global expression of the brand is “Find New Roads” and centers on the notion that all humans aspire to achieve new possibilities. The opening line to our brand story says: “every road leads us to somewhere we are not, but could be” and is about imagining what is possible. The Chevy brand is the catalyst that helps transport the consumer down the road to what is possible. Interestingly, the brand has its roots in the American promise, but we of course can’t tout this globally. However, the human desire to dream about possibilities and the ability to achieve them is solidly grounded in an American ideal.  You can also see the American influence in our five values that underpin the Chevy brand. They are ingenuity, confidence, optimism, young-at-heart, and authenticity.

While finding new roads is the aspirational, human element of our brand, we have very clear guideposts related to design, performance, and technology. We want the car design to raise your heartbeat a little. A driving experience that puts a smile on your face. And technology that simplifies the customer’s lives and is easy to use. There is a great saying that the Japanese used when I worked with them: “We need to make things as simple as possible and as complex as necessary” and that definitely applies to brand architectures.

 All of this suggests that the brand has a consistent backbone centered on aspiration, performance-oriented benefits, and support. However, we allow for local customization beyond this because we don’t want to be so restrictive that we limit our opportunity.

Whitler: What are some of the unique challenges that come with being a global vs. regional CMO?

Mahoney: There are several additional challenges in leading a global brand: language differences, time differences, technology differences, and cultural differences to name a few.

As an example, consider the varied use of technology globally. In the U.S., we talk about the second screen (i.e., mobile, tablet, etc.). In many parts of the world, however, the mobile phone or tablet is the primary screen. This then impacts how people in those areas consume media, and how the car needs to interact with the first—or second—screen.

As another example, in many urban areas around the globe, space is at a premium. Parking spaces are small. So the big, U.S.-type SUV simply doesn’t work. We have found a new road with the Chevy Trax; a small SUV that is right-sized for the markets. You can see how consumer habits and practices, governmental regulation, norms, etc. can influence a lot.

A third example of a challenge is coming up with a global name. You have to find a name that is available (legally) in every country, culturally acceptable and has similar positive meaning in every country, etc. This is exceptionally hard and is why many companies rely on a numbering or lettering system that ladders up to the general brand name.

Whitler: How is marketing a car company different from other products?

Mahoney: The cost of the product makes it a very different consumer purchase experience. It tends to be a very considered purchase – one of the most considered after college education and the purchase of a new home. That amount of consumer involvement means that you have to be everywhere with relevant content so as the consumer visits the showroom, visits the website, etc. they can dig as deep and as easily into our offerings as possible.

Whitler: Shifting gears, what are the skills that students should be acquiring today to prepare them to be future C-level marketing leaders?

1. Have a world-view: I was a language major in college and as the world becomes more and more connected, having a world-view is more important. Whatever students can do to cultivate a point of view that goes beyond their own experience, beyond their own market (i.e., North America), to understand the broader global community will make them more valuable to firms.

2. Invest in technology literacy: The importance of technology is growing. Marketing leaders must be adept at digital, social, mobile to be competent leaders

3. Understand consumer habits and insights: There is a fundamental shift occurring with the younger generation. Some seem to be more interested in a sharing/borrowing model (e.g., Uber, AirBNB, car-sharing) than an ownership model. As you can imagine, this has important implications for the auto industry. You want to be deeply connected to shifts in beliefs and behaviors so that you can effectively manage them versus getting run over by them.

 

This article was written by Kimberly A. Whitler from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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