Sunday, March 25, 2012

You've got to be kidding, GM

My family owns a 1999 Chevy Malibu that looks like this car. I am soured on GM and Chevys, in particular, after our experience owning this car. Source: Wikipedia

The transportation geek in me was piqued by the recent publication of a New York Times story on GM's efforts to market cars to Millennials. (The Atlantic's Jordan Weissman added his own analysis here.) Allow me to explain why.

GM approached my former employer about placing two types of Chevys on our campus. Apparently, someone in GM's young people marketing unit thought that our campus - due to the size of our student body and our location in a "car metropolis" - would be a good place to try to plant the seeds for making Chevy relevant to Millennials.

I was skeptical when I first heard about this in a small staff meeting. Parking is scarce for students on our campus. Also, our students are pretty price sensitive. I couldn't imagine many of them buying cars anytime soon. (See past articles about declining car ownership rates amongst young people.) also, I pointed out that GM has to overcome the bad rap they have with Millennials.

Many of us - myself included - grew up with a GM vehicle in their household. And more likely than not, that car was crap. Often, we saw first hand how GM produced cars that were reliable, clunky, and poorly finished.

Example: When the three-year warranty ran out on our Malibu, the water pump promptly needed to be replaced. Cost: $900. I drove the car sometimes as an adult, and I swore that I would never, ever, EVER buy a GM car. 

That said, I would have fulfilled my obligations as an employee to market and promote the cars had they ever arrived on our campus.  My employer and I wanted GM to figure out some sort of deal that would enable Zipcar, a vendor with whom we had a contract, to manage the cars. For reasons unknown to me, this was not possible. Instead, GM wanted to have WeCar (a subsidiary of Enterprise) manage the cars, which would have been more (unnecessary) work for me.

GM is also poorly regarded on our campus and amongst Millennials nationwide.

Example:  The "Reality Sucks" campaign. GM placed ads in university student newspapers (including mine) showing a "hot" woman smiling, flaunting her superiority to a cyclist:

Brilliant. Simply brilliant. Click on photo to enlarge. Best part: They offer information not only on the Sonic, but also a freaking huge, gas guzzling pick-up truck.
Bike Portland was tipped off to this ad by an anonymous source, who just happened to be a professor at my place of employment.

Chaos ensued. We're talking thousands of negative posts on the GM Facebook page, countless angry tweets, and lots of coverage in the traditional and new media.

GM's efforts to increase its relevance amongst Millennials are not going very well. I think that had GM successfully placed the cars on our campus, students might have rented them. However, but I also think we would have also faced considerable criticism from various corners of our campus for partnering with GM, due to their bad reputation (car quality, insensitivity to cyclists and pedestrians, of which there are many on our dense campus).

 I, in the meanwhile, will continue to ride the bus, a bike, or a Xootr Scooter:


  1. You are using an "n" of 1 for making your decision on GM. That's not statistically reliable. The high cost of the water pump replacement on your '99 Malibu was out of line, making it a repair shop issue, not GM, per se. You don't mention which engine, since the V-6 replacement is simple but the 4-cyl one is more difficult. Water pumps are wearing parts and are not made by the assembly plants but by independent subcontractors. That same water pump is probably used by several different auto manufacturers.

    1. Hi Fred,
      Thanks for your comment and sharing your technical knowledge. I think, however, that while a lot of customers might decide to become *first-time* customers based on information they crowdsourced (enter Yelp or Consumer Reports), a lot of customers decide whether to become repeat customers based on *their* experience, and their experience only. So in fact, I think that making my decision not to be a repeat GM customer feels right to me.

      While I think it is wise that GM made efforts to improve the reliability and relevance of their products to my generation, I have not been convinced that I want to be a customer of theirs. Not only would GM have to convince me that their cars won't fall apart immediately after the warranty period concludes, they would have to convince me that the impression I gleaned of GM as a child and teen (informed by our ownership experience and everything I read in Consumer Reports) was a thing of the past... OH. And they'd have to convince me that my peers (who are into sustainable transportation) won't laugh or scorn me for being a traitor (see the "Reality Bites" campaign.) That is such a tall order.