Lazar Explains Troubled GM’s Media Strategy

Betsy Lazar has been a major player in General Motors’ drive away from big budget, big exposure events. In August, the automaker announced a massive marketing retreat from the Oscars, Emmys and upcoming Super Bowl. It pulled Cadillac from the Masters, opted not to renew with the U.S. Olympic Committee and partially withdrew from Nascar. The decision to cut and consolidate its marketing and sales budget came on the heels of a walloping $15.5 billion loss in the second quarter. Through September, GM sales are down 17.8%. Lazar, who has been part of General Motors’ marketing landscape for 19-plus years, has been put to the task of turning GM around while whittling the automaker’s ad spend. The executive director of advertising and media operations gave senior reporter Steve Miller the lowdown on how GM arrived at its tough decisions, as well as where she sees the company heading for the future.

Brandweek: Why pull out of those high-profile shows and events?

Betsy Lazar: It was with a lot of angst that we let them go . . . What we found was that the [award shows], being a one-evening program with a premium price, were not working. Unless someone is in that sweet spot, where they are looking for a car, it is difficult to get a value from that one evening. What we realized is that there are other properties that give us better exposure and can intercept more people who are in market.

BW: What about sports?
BL: We still believe in the power of Nascar and have a deep association there. We have cut back with them, and that was just a matter of getting the association to the right size. With the Olympics, the problem we were having is that we could use them to great advantage when they were held in the U.S. But when the games are in Beijing, it becomes more challenging to use those rights. But GM Canada has rights for the games in Vancouver in 2010.

BW: Is there anything GM can do to confront consumers’ fears about making such a big ticket purchase?
BL: We put in employee pricing, which was aimed at giving consumers some confidence. But we aren’t expecting to change the shape of the auto marketplace. We operate within the constraints of the downturn to maintain market share. We think that gas prices will remain high, so what is shaping our message is our own structural change. It would be terrific if fuel prices went back down, but we are not optimistic that they ever will.

BW: Looking at the extensive prerelease marketing for Volt, is GM’s task to educate the public that such technology is coming or to worry about sales of cars on the lots right now?
BL: We, of course, have to do both. We have been really working hard to tell the story of where the company is headed in the future. [The Volt and] our “Fuel Solutions” campaign has been a large part of that story. [But,] everything we run right now has to deal with fuel economy, because consumers are being hit in the pocketbook. So we have environmental campaigns that tell of the future and current campaigns that tell of fuel economy.

BW: You said once, “The more affluent the consumer, the more likely they are to be a light TV watcher.” Is this still the case?
BL: Yes, it is still true. It’s also true that upper- income households are more likely to have TiVo or a DVR [and] they are more likely to skip commercials. What has happened is that they tend to be ‘appointment watchers.’ We have to scale back and be where they are watching. We need to look for programs that are more likely to be watched live, and sports are the best example of that. And we continue to use print to reach those upper-end consumers.

BW: How does GM attack the Web these days?