GM Hires Joel Ewanick from Nissan to Lead Marketing

By Chris Haak

GM announced today that its head of marketing, Susan Docherty, is now its former head of marketing.  Prior to that, Ms. Docherty had previously been head of marketing and sales, but GM North America President Mark Reuss took the marketing role away from her.

There has been a considerable amount of turnover at GM in its executive ranks over the past 18 months, with the company now on (by our count) its third CEO, second president, and fourth head of marketing (Mark LaNeve – Bob Lutz – Susan Docherty – and now Joel Ewanick).  GM has also changed its divisional heads a number of times, and added and removed responsibilities from various individuals.  What is not yet clear is whether the script (i.e. GM’s culture) is changing, or just the actors.

Joel Ewanick, by most accounts, is a talented marketer.  He’s also become a bit of a job-hopper inthe past few months.   He joins GM from Nissan, but he had only been there for about six weeks, since March 22.  Prior to the Nissan gig, where he oversaw all marketing for Nissan brand vehicles, he was with Hyundai from February 2007 to March 2010.  Ewanick’s most famous accomplishment at Hyundai, aside from helping to grow the brand’s sales in a terrible 2009 auto market, was successfully bringing the Hyundai Assurance plan to market.  Many have credited the Hyundai Assurance program with helping consumers to have the confidence to buy a new car, even amidst the uncertainty of the economy.  (Click here for more about the Hyundai Assurance program.)

Where Ewanick has apparently struggled, however, is in shifting Hyundai’s brand more upscale.  Hyundai’s newer, premium models, though generally well-regarded by critics, have not been smash hits.  The Azera, Veracruz, and Genesis (both sedan and coupe) sell in volumes that are fractions of what their stated competitors sell.  For example, the Genesis (whose results aren’t broken down between coupe and sedan, so therefore combines a 5 Series competitor with a Mustang competitor) has sold 7,842 units through the first third of 2010; BMW has sold 9,692 5 Series cars and Ford has sold 20,836 Mustangs during the same period.  Hyundai moved just 2,111 Veracruz crossovers through April 30, while Toyota sold 26,896 Lexus RX crossovers, in spite of the Veracruz’s pricing advantage (and that it won a questionable Motor Trend comparison test agains the previous-generation RX).  Hyundai sold just 935 Azeras in the first four months of 2010 while Toyota sold 7,612 Avalons.  At the sales volumes the Genesis is spotting, it will be lucky to hit half of the company’s stated goal of 50,000 cars per year.

With all this being said, however, it is also important to mention that GM’s marketing organization is, shall we way, not exactly delivering what it needs to.  The vehicle lineup, with a few exceptions, is in good shape at this point.  Quality is improved, weak dealers have been cut, and the company has a strong balance sheet (though is still 61 percent owned by the US government).  It needs to do a much better job of communicating its value proposition to a skeptical public.  GM’s vehicles *can* be a solid value, and based on his success at Hyundai, Ewanick may be the right guy for the job.  

The likelihood of his success also depends upon whether he is able to overcome GM’s culture and have full control over marketing; if he gets that, and he makes all the right moves, he could be the next Jim Farley.  Farley’s stock as a marketer (and potential CEO succession candidate) has been on the upswing since he brought new ideas and new marketing discipline to Ford when he jumped from Lexus several years ago.  If Mr. Ewanick is instead limited by the stagnant GM culture -which CEO Ed Whitacre is apparently doing his best to excise from the company – he will just give us more of the same.

Our first suggestion for Mr. Ewanick after he begins his new job later this month is to take a hard look at who has come up with some of the worst GM marketing ideas over the past few years, and show them the door.  He may also want to reconsider the adoption of Chevrolet’s new tagline, “Excellence for All.”  It sure sounds like it’s not anywhere close to the same league as “Heartbeat of America” or “Like a Rock.”

Meanwhile, Ewanick’s immediate predecessor, Susan Docherty, will remain employed at GM for the forseeable future.  Her next role is yet to be defined, but that could well just mean that the company is working on her exit package.  With GM, though, one never knows.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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