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Scientists Mine Human Behavior to Sell Silverado

GM is leaving little to chance when it comes to new pickup, even hiring a team of anthropologists to help devise the vehicle's market position.

October 29, 1998|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — General Motors Corp. sells about 80 different cars and trucks in the United States. But these days, the world's largest auto maker is obsessed with just one vehicle, or as GM pooh-bahs see it, "the vehicle."

It is the 1999 Chevrolet Silverado full-size pickup (and its twin, the GMC Sierra). The vehicle, redesigned from roof to rubber for the first time in a decade, replaces the aging but venerable C/K pickup.

It would be difficult to underestimate the importance of the Silverado to GM and Chevy.

"This is the most important launch by Chevy this decade," said John Middlebrook, general manager of the flagship division.

Why? Full-size pickups account for 13% of all GM car and truck sales. They also are highly profitable. GM hopes to sell more than 600,000 Silverados in the coming model year, generating $14 billion in sales. That's more revenue than McDonald's, Microsoft or Time Warner posted last year.

GM holds about 30% of the full-size pickup market, competing largely against Ford's F-Series and Chrysler's Dodge Ram. The segment is projected to grow as more families buy extended-cab pickups to replace traditional sedans.

Small wonder, then, that GM is leaving little to chance when it comes to the Silverado, even enlisting a team of cultural anthropologists to help formulate the vehicle's design and market position.

GM is spending a truckload of cash to market the pickup in the next year. It recently began a $135-million multimedia advertising blitz promoting the Silverado as "The Truck," one that is bigger, faster, stronger and smarter than the competition.

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The marketing message evolved in part from anthropological field studies based on months of careful observation of the behavior and thinking of pickup truck owners and wannabes.

The research found that there is a strong "truck culture" among pickup cognoscenti. The truck owners hold in high esteem shared core values such as self-reliance, dependability, honesty and perseverance.

Equipped with these findings, GM decided it was best for the Silverado to build on the C/K's considerable brand equity. The new truck stayed true to its predecessor's heritage of delivering brawny but reliable transportation.

There are no radical changes in the truck's exterior design. The emphasis is on dependability and improved attributes of size, power and strength. GM is pitching the Silverado by incorporating the successful "Like a Rock" message used to sell Chevy pickups since 1992.

GM began dissecting the truck market seriously in the late 1980s as more consumers began trading in passenger cars for full-size pickups and sport-utility vehicles. Research indicated that the shift from cars to trucks reflected an increasing yearning for meaning and solid beliefs.

"People were seeking a deeper sense of values, a sense of perseverance and self-reliability, seeking more integrity and honesty in their lives," said Bill Ludwig, vice chairman of Campbell-Ewald, the ad agency for the Silverado campaign.

To many Americans, these values are best represented by pickup truck owners, denim-wearing working people who toil with their hands and do an honest day's labor for an honest day's pay. This contrasts with an image pickup owners hold of corporate life as dishonest and shallow.

GM is targeting the Silverado to consumers in their 40s with annual incomes of $55,000 to $65,000. About 60% of projected buyers need a pickup for business, and 90% of the principal drivers are men.

But demographics are less important than image in marketing the Silverado. Pickup owners see themselves as do-it-yourselfers, sports enthusiasts and lovers of the outdoors.

"They view truck ownership as a cornerstone of their being," said Mac Whisner, national manager for Chevy's truck advertising. "They view their truck as a partner. It's a trusted partner."

In the world of automotive marketing, you are what you drive. If a Chevy pickup is believed to be like a rock, the owner is projecting an image of himself that says he is solid, dependable and indestructible.

GM is betting that pickup owners don't want a vehicle that will win a beauty contest or is laden with the latest high-tech gizmos. Rather, what they want is a truck with a bigger, roomier cab, a more powerful engine and a stronger payload-carrying frame.

What they want, Ludwig says, is " 'The Truck,' pure and simple."

Powering Up: As automobiles become equipped with more electronic gadgetry, there is a growing need for more electrical power to handle all the functions. But the current 12-volt electrical system that has worked for the last 30 years is increasingly inadequate to handle the growing power demands.

This is prompting U.S. auto makers to adopt a new 36/42-volt standard that could appear on vehicles as early as 2002. The new electrical system will triple the battery and generator output.

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