How GM plans to convince consumers to make the switch to electric vehicles

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Electric Chevrolet Silverado shown at the New York Auto Show, April, 2022.
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

When people think of electric vehicles, their minds typically jump to Tesla. But Elon Musk’s company now has a lot more EV competition from Detroit.  

Within the past six years, General Motors CEO Mary Barra has pushed the company towards a total transition from gas vehicles to electric as deals and consumer interest are increasing. GM plans to sell up to 175,000 electric vehicles to Hertz Global by 2027 – rentals are a key method to introduce more people to EVs without having to commit to a purchase. And the company also had to close reservations for its high-end all-electric Hummer last week after reaching 90,000 people. 

Ford is on a similar track, and it had to close reservations for its F-150 Lightning pickup, and the auto maker raised prices for the second time on the EV pickup, too.

The reservations and price hikes aren’t just about an absolute level of demand that is off the charts — supply chain constraints and limited production for new models are major factors. 

That crowded EV landscape is making GM approach its marketing differently, GM CMO Deborah Wahl told CNBC’s Julia Boorstin at a recent CNBC CMO Exchange virtual event. 

“We have to be even more clever,” Wahl said. “There is more competitive activity, more innovations I think, than at any other time in automotive history since we changed from horses to cars.” 

The message from the auto giants is clear. 

While the economy is in a period of uncertainty and costs are being scrutinized more closely as inflation pinches consumers and influences purchase decisions, Wahl told CNBC that GM is focused on core objectives, and “For us right now, it is to work on the transformation of the industry to EVs. We believe EVs are the future.” 

Taking the Hummer into the world of EVs shows that auto companies are betting on continued interest at the high-end of the market, where Tesla made its name. Mercedes, too, is betting that luxury consumers will continue to lead the EV adoption curve. But there’s also a transformation taking place across auto categories and including the best-selling vehicles in the U.S. As GM rebrands as an EV company it is featuring a growing range of electric vehicles, from the Chevrolet Silverado (its F-150 rival and together, the two most-popular vehicles in the U.S.) to the Cadillac Lyriq and to under $30,000 with its base model Bolt sedan.  

“We’ve made it very clear that we’re going all-EV in our portfolios, and right now it’s a really big consumer challenge about bringing everyone along with that,” Wahl said.  

Here are a few of the key ideas inside GM that Wahl shared with CNBC on how the auto company plans to make the EV a mass-market success. 

Let car buyers ask a lot of questions 

Two-thirds of Americans support the government offering incentives for EV purchases, according to a recent study from the Pew Foundation. However, only 42% of Americans would be very likely or somewhat likely to purchase one. While people recognize the benefits of EVs, like helping the environment and saving money on gas, these factors alone aren’t enough to convince the public to switch to EVs.  

That’s why GM is doing whatever it can to educate customers on EVs and get them comfortable with making this switch. 

“People are at different levels of knowledge of EVs, and so they need different information,” Wahl said. “It’s a different exchange overall.” 

GM’s video chat platform GM EV Live allows customers to call in to live showrooms, ask questions and gain a greater understanding of GM’s electric vehicles without having to travel to a dealership, whether a customer is curious about charging, mileage or new technological features.  

GM first began this move towards virtual showrooms back in 2017 with Dentsu Aegis Network when the companies partnered together to launch a mixed-reality dealership application. Over the years, GM has created other virtual showrooms like Chevy MyWay and Cadillac Live, but GM EV Live is the first EV-only showroom being offered by GM.  

Focus on all the in-car technology, not just EV technology 

GM is focused on advancing technology to create better and safer driving experiences along with sleeker models for EVs. On-the-go charging abilities, active noise cancellation speakers and hands-free driver assistance are just some of GM’s many technological advancements that are enticing even those weary of EVs. 

“They’re already mesmerizing people because the experience is so stunning, not only just the core driving, but the technology that you have inside,” said Wahl.  

While GM’s technology is finding ways to draw in more EV customers, the company still faces the challenge of getting customers on board with the idea of autonomous vehicles. GM is currently testing Cruise, its first ever autonomous vehicle unit, in San Francisco and it is aiming to eventually have all its vehicles powered by electricity and be autonomous.  

Despite a recall of 80 Cruise vehicles in early September, GM is pushing towards expanding Cruise testing to Phoenix and Austin and forecasts a business worth $1 billion in revenue by 2025. 

Maintain core principles through EVs 

Wahl said one thing that has not changed is the underlying principles of marketing. 

“I do believe in the core basics of marketing, which is tell the story, tell it well, do it in an engaging fashion, and if you’re really good, you’ll make a cultural impact,” she said. 

For over a century now, GM has impacted American culture and secured a presence as a top auto maker. So, it’s crucial for the company to continue maintaining its identity even as it transitions to EVs.  

GM Chair and CEO Mary Barra addresses investors Oct. 6, 2021 at the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan.
Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors

Cadillac, for example, is getting a remake as a luxury EV brand, starting with the Cadillac Lyriq. 

Cadillac has been iconic it its journey, and that is its new tagline, Wahl said: Be iconic. “And if you look at the way they are expressing themselves, they’ve gone back to re-express the core of who Cadillac has been but for the modern day, and they’re doing it with the Lyriq EV which completely redefines luxury with EVs,” she said.

With a starting price of $59,990, the Lyriq will be the first electric Cadillac on the market, but GM isn’t stopping there, as other electric Cadillacs are already in the works, like the Cadillac Celestiq, which is set to begin production by the end of this year.  

Keep up with celebrity and influencer trends 

The world of celebrity endorsements doesn’t look the same as it did ten years ago either, and GM is partnering in new ways with iconic celebrities as well as new social media personalities, from NBA star LeBron James to TikTok influencer Breland.  

In a recent commercial for the Hummer EV, James shows off the car’s CrabWalk ability, which lets you drive diagonally and enables greater mobility for parking or off-roading.  

The Hummer EV is also being promoted in video games like “Call of Duty” and GM is expanding beyond producing traditional commercials by placing a new focus on social media platforms. 

“Influencers are the new media channels,” Wahl said.  

Joining forces with Breland, a TikTok influencer who went viral for making music, GM debuted its first TikTok for Chevrolet. Performing a parody version of his song “My Truck,” Breland sang about Chevy trucks, while various Chevrolet Silverados were showcased throughout the TikTok.  

“It allows us to get the core messages out to the right audiences at the right time,” Wahl said. “It’s pretty easy to see, you know, which influencers impact which targets.” 

Sophie Tremblay

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