In early June 2009, General Motors declared bankruptcy and launched a new "re: invention" initiative to engage with the public and share the ways that the company would emerge leaner and prepared to succeed. GM's initiative kicked off with a website, a television commercial, and a letter (in the form of full-page newspaper advertisements) from Frederick A. "Fritz" Henderson, president and CEO of GM. The letter closed with the following:
Over the coming days, months and years, we will prove ourselves by being more transparent, more accountable and, above all, more focused on you, our customer. I invite you to track our progress at GMreinvention.com. And on behalf of all the men and women doing the hard work of changing our company for the better, we look forward to showing you the New GM.
From my perspective, the marketing aspects of the re: invention rollout looked like a collection of the same old marketing stuff that hadn't served GM too well over its decades of decline. It seemed to be typical GM, which left me a bit sad and depressed. So I blogged about it in a post called "Attention GM: Here are the Top 5 Marketing Ideas for Your Reinvention." I asked if, during the reinvention of the company, GM is really serious about reinventing the company's marketing.
Some of my suggestions were either obvious ("Create the products that people want to buy") or admittedly vague ("Fire your Madison Avenue advertising agencies"). The television commercials, the "sponsored by" stuff, and other high-ticket marketing ideas might make GM feel good, but I question their effectiveness.
However, there was one suggestion in my blog post, "Humanize your company," that got people interested. Yes, I was a bit harsh:
Sorry to have to tell you this: You are a nameless, faceless, corporation. Your ad in the newspaper today was signed by the CEO, but why no photo of him? Did he even read the letter that some marketer wrote on his behalf? The new TV commercial you launched today is an inane collection of stock photos together with a few cars. It is generic. With a few different cars, the ad could have been made by Chrysler. What about the people behind the reinvention? I want to meet the car designers. I want to know who the person is in your company who chose that weird color of purple of my latest GM rental car. People want to do business with people. Hey GM! Knock knock! Is anyone home? Who the hell are you???
Hundreds of people tweeted about the humanization aspect of the GM re: invention, and 50 people commented on my blog. But then something really interesting happened: Christopher Barger, director of social media at GM, took time out during the busiest week in GM's history to engage in the conversation: "With much respect, I'd offer that at least in the social realm, we are already doing much of what you're suggesting." Barger provided details and jumped in again the next day.
You know what? Barger is right. GM is beginning to humanize the company, and the re: invention process has been swift. Several weeks later, on July 10 (the day that the "New GM" emerged from bankruptcy), GM CEO Fritz Henderson not only did the typical news conference for mainstream media reporters, but he also engaged with people in online forums. This simple act humanized him and his company.
Henderson answered questions for a half hour that day on Twitter, using the #fritz hash tag so anybody could follow the conversations. I asked this question: "New GM #fritz @gmblogs: The brands spend huge amounts of $ on TV commercials & TV sponsorship. How can you know this approach is effective?" I was pleased to get this answer in return: "there is a role for such spending, but we also must explore social media and other direct forms." This form of engagement on Twitter was so surprising that the television newscasters talked about it that evening and the next day.
It's exciting to me that GM is indeed listening-all the way to the top. Barger has engaged in the conversation online, and I've had a Tweet replied to by the CEO of the company. Pretty cool. Obviously, there is a long way to go at GM. But as I write this, I am much more confident about the company's long-term survival than I was just a few weeks ago.