CASE STUDY: General Motors

Organization: The General Motors Company; Twitter.com/GMBlogs; Facebook.com/GeneralMotors Background: The General Motors Company, also known as GM, is a U.S.-based automaker with its headquarters in Detroit, Michigan. The company manufactures cars and trucks in 34 countries, recently employed 244,500 people around the world, and sells and services vehicles in some 140 countries.

Business Need: Following declaration of Chapter 11/363 Bankruptcy, General Motors needed to completely redefine its established brand image, which appeared to consumers as faceless, nameless, outdated and impenetrable. The new GM brand structure would require a more accessible and transparent feeling in order to help humanize the brand.

Social Media Solution: Build a diverse social media team, with CEO engagement and support, to handle all logistical/management social media operations, which allow the newly defined GM brand mentality of openness and engagement to be clearly communicated and fully accessible to the media, to the general public, and most importantly, to customers.

Business Result: Held market share with four fewer brands, increased awareness and consideration, created solid customer loyalty and positive brand awareness.

What actually happened: As the financial industry collapsed into decay in late 2007, things progressively worsened across all industries in America, including the automotive industry. A year later, corporate giants and small businesses alike continued to fear the worst was yet to come.

Despite countless efforts to prevent the inevitable bankruptcy filings including “putting divisions and parts operations up for sale and cutting the size of its workforce repeatedly," problems continued to worsen. On June 1, 2009, GM’s worst nightmare became a reality when it filed for bankruptcy. Because of this drastic setback, and even with the U.S. government estimated to pledge an additional “$30 billion at least … on top of the $20 billion handed to [GM] already,” the future seemed uncertain for one of the Big Three American auto giants.

GM had weathered many difficult financial climates throughout its long history. In an article for Business Week reviewing General Motor’s current financial state, reporter Ed Wallace makes a key observation: “[Even] after the 1910 Financial Panic ended, rising sales proved that GM was viable in any condition.”

Over the decades since its founding in 1908, the company has persevered through the good times and bad. But more importantly, the GM brand has built a name for itself to represent “for almost a century a symbol of American industrial might;" In a word, GM’s brand has proven to be resilient.  Yet consumer confidence had plummeted and the company needed a fresh approach in order to restore faith in its heritage brand.

Because of its consistently solid market share and size, GM had a big opportunity to proactively rebound from this destructive period and rebuild a lost relationship with its customers. It did so with social media.  In May 2009, GM put together an extended social media team consisting of members with backgrounds in finance, media relations and marketing.  Their task: implement and oversee a tidal wave of social media touch points that introduced the freshly restructured GM brand mentality with openness and consumers at the center.

First, using platforms like Twitter and Facebook, GM’s social media team listened carefully to what was being said about its brand and acted quickly to rectify misconceptions about the company. For example, Mary Henige, Director of Social Media & Digital Communications for GM, saw a comment on Twitter from a customer who wanted GM to stop closing down smaller dealers and instead to “shut down their company-owned dealerships.”

Within seconds, a member of the team responded to that customer explaining that at GM, actually there are no “company-owned dealerships.” In reality, all dealerships are independent, often family-owned businesses passed down through generations.  Although this example illustrates only one customer’s incorrect perception, it’s highly likely that many others probably thought similarly, which impacts GM’s brand negatively. However, when GM used a social media vehicle like Twitter to publicly and positively respond to the misconception, they were able to correct the negative comment proactively and without distancing the customer.  The era of social media makes handling this type of communication with a customer more possible than ever before.

Communicating and listening intently to a customer is ALSO one of the most important things a business should be doing at all times. This is just one of many examples of how GM was able to set the record straight by communicating directly with customers and prospects via social media.  Next, GM created an unprecedented program giving the public direct access to the CEO via social media. GM’s CEO at the time, Fritz Henderson, understood the importance and necessity of active listening, being open and engaging with consumers. Through a series of live web events, customers, the media, and the general public were encouraged to participate in Q & A sessions and press conferences with Henderson.

The ability to speak one-on-one with the CEO of a major corporation like GM seemed almost too good to be true, and in fact, some assumed it was just a PR “hoax.” However, staff recorded Henderson typing his answers during a web chat using Flip Cam technology in order to prove his active participation and to thank GM supporters. The video coverage was posted on GM’s Facebook page as well as on vehicles, and was quickly disseminated across the social web.

An “Ask Fritz” forum was also created whereby customers could exchange ideas and information with the CEO.  Within six months, over 16,500 customer comments and questions were addressed. GM managed not only to “wow” its customers with this campaign, but it set a new standard of engagement, demonstrating its values of openness and transparency, building consumer confidence and deepening customer loyalty.

Additionally, GM launched an interactive website, GMReinvention.com, inviting visitors to “Take a look at the new GM.”  The site provides a wealth of informative videos about GM and its vehicles, as well as opportunities to chat, get industry news and get to know members of the organization. Since June 2009, the site has generated an impressive 1.5 million unique video views and 1.6 million unique web visits.

These enthusiastic customers create buzz around GM products via their social networks, helping GM build its business. Additionally, these “brand ambassadors” often go to great lengths to defend the brand in the face of negativity or to correct misinformation that may be circulating about GM.

These conversations are taking place in real time in the social media space, which means they are reaching an audience of hundreds if not thousands. And the message is that much more powerful and credible coming from a peer rather than from a GM representative.  In this age of social media and the aftermath of the recession, corporations more than ever before are held to a higher standard of ethics, professionalism and transparency.  It’s becoming harder to bury flaws because social media serves to magnify them. Instead of running away from social media, General Motors embraced the new technology and seized the opportunity to reinvent its outdated brand.

Thanks to GM’s savvy use of social media, results have been steady market share, brand awareness and customer loyalty. While there’s still more work to be done, this iconic American brand sees a bright future as it continues to reinvent itself through the power of social media.