Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Hummer’s identity

Last February I received an email from an owner of a Cadillac CTS, saying that to buy a vehicle he must “first fall in love” with it. In a PBS interview, Clotaire Rapaille concurs: “The PT Cruiser is a car [that] when people see it, they say, "Wow, I want it." Some people hate it; we don't care. There is enough people that say, "Wow, I want it," to make a big success […] What is it that make[s] the PT Cruiser a reptilian car? First, the car has a strong identity. What people told us is that "We're tired of these cars that have no identity. I have good quality, good gas mileage, good everything else, but when I see the car from a distance, I have to wait till the car gets close to know what it is, and I have to read the name." When you go to see your mother, she doesn't need to read your name to know who you are, you see? We want this reptilian connection. And so this notion of identity, absolutely key, was very reptilian for a car.”

The PT Cruiser is a break (station wagon) type vehicle whose design is somewhat retro; it has pleased a market segment so much, that General Motors felt the need to produce a similar vehicle, the Chevrolet HHR, which GM classifies as an SUV. The Hummer is also a vehicle with a strong personality. Here is what Rapaille thinks of it and of advertising used to promote it: “the Hummer is a car with a strong identity. It's a car in a uniform. I told them, put four stars on the shoulder of the Hummer, you will sell better. If you look at the campaign, brilliant. I have no credit for it, just so you know, but brilliant. They say, "You give us the money, we give you the car, nobody gets hurt." I love it! It's like the mafia speaking to you […] They’re not telling you, "Buy a Hummer because you get better gas mileage." You don't. This is cortex things. They address your reptilian brain.” This is a somewhat special conception of sales and marketing, to which I do not subscribe. However, I must bow before the evidence; this approach works with a segment of the population.

As we have just seen, the fact that some people detest the Hummer does not overly concern General Motors. At most, the managers of this GM subsidiary intend to focus on the H3 model, which has a lesser appetite for gas, and offer a slightly smaller model, the H4, in 2010. (Hummer’s Web site, consulted August 15 2007). However, I se this strategy more as a strategy to lower the product line (B. Duguay, Consommation et luxe, La voie de l’excès et de l’illusion, Montréal: Liber, 2007) rather than an attempt to seduce the Hummer’s opponents, a reaction to the decline in the sales of the H2 model of 22% in 2005 and 27% in 2006 (N. Bérubé, « Le Hummer sur une voie de garage », La Presse, 30 mai 2007, p. A24). Yet, I do not see the H2 disappear because, for some, its gas consumption alone is not sufficient reason to do without it; Gasoline consumption is a rational factor that may discourage some people, but not the true aficionados. Moreover, if the price of gasoline decreases a little, as it appears to be the case in the summer and fall of 2007, I would not be at all surprised to see sales of the H2 bounce back, or at least stop dropping.


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