Friday, March 2, 2012

Do we sell things or do people buy them?

         When I was Creative Director on the General Motors corporate advertising account, the GM people insisted they don't sell cars --- people buy them.

          At the time, I thought it was simply a conceit at GM. That their cars were so good they didn't have to be sold. A few years later, General Motors was in trouble. People seemed to be buying more Toyotas and BMWs and Hondas.

         To help their profit picture, GM started economizing. One way was to streamline the way they designed and built cars. All GM cars started looking alike, and it was hard to tell a Pontiac from an Oldsmobile or a Buick.

         Another thing General Motors did was to make sure each make had a big price spread, so no buyer would leave a showroom without finding something in their price range. You could get an expensive Chevy or a small Cadillac. You choose.

         This is all, of course, a lesson in branding. Soon all of GM's car lines stood for the same thing: nothing.

          Saturn was introduced as the American answer to Toyota. A lot of people liked it, and Hal Riney and his advertising agency did great work to introduce it. Then, a couple of years after Riney made it stand out, GM decided it should fit in. In other words, be guided by the same bland rules and economies as its other brands. Today, there's no Saturn, no Pontiac, no Oldsmobile. There was almost was no General Motors. And Buick's only alive because bigwigs in China are buying them.

          If a brand doesn't stand for something, it dies. If you try to make it stand for too much, it dies faster. When you work in marketing, your job is to build brands, not just sell products.

          I could've bought generic sunglasses at the drug store for $4.99. But someone sold me on Ray-Bans.

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