Chevy Cocreation

Gm_tahoe In March, Chevy invited people to make ads for the 2007 Tahoe.  The Chevy website supplied videoclips, sound tracks, and a copy field.  Hey, presto, consumer created content. 

The results were not surprising.  Some people seized this opportunity to mock SUVs as a cause of global warning, as a danger on the highway, and as a source of social injustice.  There are now some 4 dozen Tahoe ads on YouTube.  Most are anti-Tahoe. 

What is surprising is that Chevy is now being trashed in the marketing press for its failure to see this coming.  In a piece called "Chevy’s Crash, Burn," Adweek columnist Catharine Taylor calls this an

… ill-advised experiment with consumer-generated advertising [that] ended up looking like a series of drive-by shootings, with the Tahoe’s image in the cross hairs. 

Well, maybe.  Here’s what Chevrolet general manager Ed Peper had to say.

Early on we made the decision that if we were to hold this contest, in which we invite anyone to create an ad, in an open forum, that we would be summarily destroyed in the blogosphere if we censored the ads based on their viewpoint.  So, we adopted a position of openness and transparency, and decided that we would welcome the debate. 

Welcome the debate?  I think he just won it.    

Is anyone really naive enough to think that consumer creation is a decorative gesture?   Does anyone suppose that we invite the consumer in for merely decorative purposes?   Does anyone think that consumers wish to participate only then to be patronized?

Here’s what we know, somewhat syllogistically,

1) consumer participation is essential for vibrant messages and brands.
2) more consumer participation means less control.
3) less control means controversy is going to happen.
4) controversy is the price of vibrant messages and brands

Anyone who is surprised by controversy, anyone who resists it, has yet to grasp the revolution in marketing that cocreation represents. 

Openness and transparency are essential.  Controversy, even anti-brand messages, are the price of admission.  If we want the brand to participate in contemporary culture, we must make it porous.  We must surrender some of our control, and send the brand out into the world for good and ill. 

There is no question that Tahoe took a hit.  But I think some of this was good for the brand.  It made Tahoe, Chevy and Detroit part of the conversation.  From a meaning management point of view, it actually works quite well. It says, "Behold, a brand that survives controversy, a brand that enables controversy.  Behold a brand that’s as rugged and mobile and all terrain."   Surviving controvery.  Enabling controversy.  When was the last time Brand America took a risk like this? 

There is a fundamental shift in the rules of the game of marketing.   We have to change our risk tolerances.   We have to understand that the marketer’s work, once so dominated by risk avoidance, is now much more about risk management.  If Adweek doesn’t get this, what hope do we have of persuading the client?


Peper, Ed.  2006.  Now that we’ve got your attention.  GM FastLane Blog.  April 6, 2006.  here.

Taylor, Catharine P.  2006.  Chevy’s Crash and Burn.  Adweek.  April 17, 2006, p. 14.  (not available on line.)

Youtube page for Tahoe ads here.

17 thoughts on “Chevy Cocreation

  1. Overworm

    “Welcome the debate? I think he just won it.”

    I agree.

    “It made Tahoe, Chevy and Detroit part of the conversation.”

    That’s the first thing I thought of when I read the sentence about the YouTube anti-mercials. No press is bad press.

    “the marketer’s work, once so dominated by risk avoidance, is now much more about risk management.”

    That is so true! I remember pitching marketing campaigns at staff meetings and having the bigwigs say they liked the ideas, but didn’t want to take a chance that x% of the target audience would take offense, not understand, misunderstand, or simply not like the campaign and the message.

    My goal in marketing a start-up was to simply get people talking, to make the company’s name make a mark in the target audience’s mind. Awareness is the first hurdle. After I clear that one, I’ll worry about tweaking the approach.

  2. Dino

    It’s funny, initially I thought GM had made a huge mistake with the whole Tahoe campaign, as it was inevitable that they would get skewered by the anti-SUVists. It was only after reading Ed Peper’s comments that it clicked, and became obvious to me why it was probably the smart thing for them to do.

    Old school habits of how we think about communications and brand die hard!

  3. fouro

    Couldn’t agree more, Grant. What’s the saying, “it’s not a principle unless it costs you something”? In this case a little exposure–and it really is nothing terminal, adweek’s being a nellie–a little exposure equals guts and a whiplash moment of grudging respect from the enviro/suspicious. Let’s hope they (GM) build on it since the only way GM is going to find credibility in this strained age of such is to hang it all out there. I blogged something earlier and used Howard Gossage’s old 60s “Pink Air” Fina campaign for a visual. Nice bit of deja vu–he quite rightly said “you got a perception problem, don’t run away. Hang a lantern on it.”

    PS: here’s my Tahoe ad – a different kinda green –

  4. Tom Asacker

    “Consumer participation is essential for vibrant messages and brands.”

    Are you sure? What form of participation? Do you mean, “all other things being equal, consumer participation . . .”

    Grant, I’m personally a little tired of participating. Sometimes I simply want to kick back and let the marketer do his or her job; e.g. entertain, inspire, provoke, etc.

    Would you really like to contribute to 24? Me either. I’d f*$#k it up! 😉

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  6. fouro

    Ooooh, Tom A., I’d contribute to a 24. No guarantees on the f*$#k it up part, but I’d do a mash up in a sec. I can picture any number of commerce-based chain reactions of good intent or slovenly oversight gone awry. mmm, fun.

  7. Grant

    Overworm, thanks, no press IS bad press especially when its about an engaged corporation and its marketers. Thanks, Grant

    Dino, that was my first reaction, too. Thanks, Grant

    fouros, thanks, “it’s not a principle unless it’s cost you something” is a great line. (It reminds me of protesters who got angry when they got arrested.) And I loved your ad, especially when the pistons appears to have achieved sync with the music, brilliant, sir, brilliant! Thanks, Grant

    Tom A., this is a really important position to stake out, esp. as cocreation begins to harden into orthodoxy, sure as shootin cc is going to get used where it shouldn’t and that’s because your skepticism is not being heard. Still and all, I think it’s a great idea when it’s done well, and easily the coming thing. Thanks, Grant

    Tom G. Thanks. Blogger’s sync! Or, the wisdom of “our crowd.” Best, Grant

  8. steve

    The key for Chevy is to turn the anti-SUV ads into markers for the niche boundary of their identity, i.e. “This product is not for the weenies who wring their hands at SUVs.” Use humor, etc. to make the point. A brand can’t often be all things to all people, and it’s better to turn some people off completely and attract others than it is to leave everybody lukewarm.

    Good example of such an attempt: A few years ago the microbrew trend had stolen all the buzz from traditional beers. Budweiser (I think) ran hilarious ads flashing text across industrial-education-type footage of the brewing process set to pseudo-martial music. IT’S TIME FOR A GOOD OLD MACROBREW….BREWED IN VATS…THE SIZE OF RHODE ISLAND. Pictures of ladies in hairnets handling bottles, giant metal vats, streams of trucks leaving the plant. I don’t know if it worked, but something like that might be a good idea for Chevy.

  9. Jim Hardison

    Seems to me that co-creation is most useful for a brand that understands its identity/story and lives it authentically enough that negative audience response only serves to make the identity more clear. I don’t think it’s an issue of risk avoidance versus risk management. It’s an issue of embracing conflict because conflict is the engine that powers every great story. This will be good for Tahoe to the extent that it contributes to the audience perception of what Tahoe is all about and why you’d buy one despite it’s apparently irresponsible approach to fuel consumption and the environment.

  10. fouro

    steve: It did work short/medium term, and the weiden & kennedy stuff was good. But the attitude spiked sales in urban markets and sales are drifting again. (Seen the revival of the old timey high life girl? Whaa?). I’d say this feeds into the drive to the what someone in my office calls the analog sensibility. I mentioned “whiplash” for enviros above–well, in a jaded world of digital polish and delivery, “oooh snap!” authentic moments of “Did they really say/do that?” has a very subversive and magnetic appeal. Grant and others were poking deserved fun at Rapaille a few posts back, but there’s a huge tribal esprit such as this that powers much of what we do IMO.

  11. fouro

    PS: thanks, Grant. Comes from years in the edit suite. Or just getting lucky. Something like that. Can’t trackback, but linked yer post at fouroboros.

  12. Donald A. Coffin

    And, GM managed to get what is likely to be very valuable feedback on what the Tahoe might become, feedback that may be more valuable than all the focus groups they could run.

  13. Graham Hill

    This is a difficult one. It lies at the crossroads of traditional marketing and what Vargo & Lusch in a recent much discussed paper in the Journal of Marketing called the “New Dominant Logic of Marketing”.

    Traditional Marketing is about:
    1. Products (and services) as the unit of exchange
    2. The benefit is the product as sold
    3. The customer is a passive purchaser
    4. Value is determined by the marketer
    5. The marketer is in charge of the exchange
    6. Value is created by the exchange

    In contrast, the New Dominant Logic is about:
    1. Longer-term benefits provided by the products as the unit of exchange
    2. The benefit is the usage experience including the embedded product
    3. The customer is an active co-creator
    4. Value is “value in use” as determined by the customer
    5. The customer is just as in charge of the exchange
    6. Value is what the product enables over the longer-term.

    So what you ask?

    Well, the customer is already having these conversations whether marketers like it or not. McKinsey estimates that 60-70% of purchase decisions are heavily influenced by WOM recommendations. Cap Gemini has shown that WOM is the second most used source of new car information and easily the most influential. And the London School of Economics has shown the power of customer advocacy in driving automotive sales growth. Marketers routinely over estimate how much customers use their communications and how much customers value them. Sure, the majority of customers won’t want to actually get INVOLVED in generating public marketing, but as Chevy has shown, a significant number will. And many of these are just the sort of customer advocates that Chevy desperately needs right now to drive customer-generated sales.

    It is better for marketers to recognise their changing role and to experiment with it, than to just ignore it until the New Dominant Logic is breathing down their necks like an angry 800lb Gorilla.

    Graham Hill
    Independent Marketing Consultant

  14. Catharine P. Taylor

    Hi folks,

    Thought I’d weigh in here since my column seems to be part of this debate. (And, yeah, I wish it wasn’t behind the Adweek firewall so you could read my comments in context.) I totally agree with the statement Grant made above saying, “We have to change our risk tolerances. We have to understand that the marketer’s work, once so dominated by risk avoidance, is now much more about risk management.” What I disagree with, of course, is the sentence that directly follows: “If Adweek doesn’t get this, what hope do we have of persuading the client?” If you read my stuff over time, you’ll see that in general, I think clients and agencies should be taking more risks, but in this instance, I begged to differ.

    What I objected to in my column was that Chevy in effect gave consumers the keys to the car, giving them all the tools they needed to trash the brand, a brand that has been associated with some real hot button topics lately and that was a natural for negative comments. Chevy aided and abetted the persistence of a stereotype. That’s a hell of a lot different than being ever-vigilant about what people are saying about your brand and being able to respond. There’s smart risk in the world and not-so-smart risk, and when you look at the situation regarding this particular brand, and this particular category, I think you can see why this effort might fall into the latter category.

    Let’s remember that the point of Chevy’s experiment was to promote that the new Tahoe is more environmentally responsible, but because of all of the anti-SUV ads that were created out there, that message had trouble getting through. I didn’t discover that was the point until I was doing research for the column, and what consumers–except for ones already deep in the consideration set–are going to do that research?

    I’m not saying that clients shouldn’t take risks. They absolutely need to. But they have to assess how appropriate a risk is to a given category and situation. In a world that thinks of SUVs as gas-guzzling global-warming instigators, this was not the best brand, at the best time, for a company-supported consumer-generated media effort.


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