GM's betting big on Chevy

The automaker hopes global buyers will fall for the ‘made-in-the-U.S.A.’ brand

Exporting an icon

GM; Car Culture/Getty Images; Photo illustration by Lauren Cattermole

Late-autumn baseball is a nostalgia-filled time for Americans. So it makes sense that General Motors would wait until Game 1 of this year’s World Series to roll out a patriotic TV ad celebrating the 100th birthday of its flagship Chevrolet brand. The 60-second spot shows people holding up historic photographs of Chevrolet vehicles and their owners in front of the same stirring American backdrops—windswept plains, craggy mountain peaks, idyllic suburban homes and gritty roadside gas bars—as they appear today. And, just in case a few heartstrings were left untugged, Ray Charles sings America the Beautiful in the background.

It’s well-worn marketing territory for Chevrolet, but it represents only part of GM’s aspirations for its bestselling nameplate. Though the bow tie has historically been synonymous with burly pickup trucks and throaty muscle cars, these days a “Chevy” is just as likely to refer to a Sonic subcompact or its sleek Cruze small car—vehicles that are designed to be sold all over the world, including fast-growing markets like China and Russia.

Through Chevrolet, GM is rebuilding its global footprint after going through a painful restructuring under bankruptcy protection two years ago. “Ford has been much more of the global player of the American carmakers in recent years,” says Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business. “I think GM is not only looking for cost savings, but is shifting its positioning to become more of a global brand.” So far, it appears to be paying off—in its third quarter, Chevrolet reported sales of 1.2 million vehicles globally, a best-ever performance for the brand. It was also the only major automaker to grow its global market share this year, with 60 per cent of sales now coming from outside the U.S.

It still has some ground to make up overseas. The bestselling car globally in 2010 was the Toyota Corolla, which sold 902,000 units around the world, according to J.D. Power and Associates. It was followed by Ford’s Focus at 806,000 and Volkswagen’s Jetta at 791,000. By contrast, Chevrolet’s bestselling global vehicle, the Cruze compact sedan, managed 300,000 units in the same period.

The challenge is balancing the need to appeal to customers in local markets while maintaining a consistency in the brand across several countries. In the U.S., GM has historically relied on Chevrolet’s rich American heritage to do much of the heavy lifting, but waxing poetic about ballpark franks and apple pie does little to whet the appetite of consumers in, say, China. “The problem is that the vehicles in China are competing on a product-to-product basis because people there haven’t grown up with Chevrolet,” Middleton says.

Fortunately for GM, selling foreigners on its small cars has never been easier. Once accused of slapping Chevrolet badges on various GM brands for sale outside of the U.S., GM developed its first truly global small car with the Cruze (designed largely in Germany and Korea and built in the U.S., South Korea, Russia and China). GM is targeting annual Cruze sales of one million annually.

Besides, while GM has been eager to capitalize on Chevrolet’s history during its centennial year, the bow tie badge’s roots aren’t quite as made-in-the-U.S.A. as many might think. Louis Chevrolet was actually a flamboyant Swiss-born race-car driver who was tapped by GM founder William Durant to put his name on a line of cars. He died a poor man in Detroit in 1941, largely forgotten even as Chevrolet became an American icon. It’s taken a while, but Chevy’s international flair may have finally returned.

The wonder years

The brand quickly became closely intertwined with the American psyche. Consumers were told to ‘see the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.’

Going global

Models like the Sonic subcompact and the Cruze are designed to be sold globally. GM wants to sell one million Cruze sedans each year.

Mr. Chevrolet

A Swiss-born race-car driver, Louis Chevrolet was approached by GM to put his name on a line of cars.

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