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Running “Deep,” Instead of Running Away

GM’s Chevrolet Volt

“Chevy Runs Deep”

When GM auto company Chevrolet introduced this new slogan late last year, few knew exactly what it meant. According to Chevy’s advertising agency – Goodby, Silverstein & Partners – “Chevy Runs Deep” is meant to be used in such a way that it will solve past marketing problems faced by the car company, including an overly heavy focus on nostalgia instead of the future.

Everyone knows that scandal sells. For that reason, we tend to focus on the negative, sometimes bone-headed moves made by large companies — from BP to Netflix — while paying scant attention to things handled well. So, as we finish up the year, let’s raise a glass in honor of GM, as it recently making good on the promise of the Chevy slogan by proactively addressing a potentially explosive issue, instead of running away from the problem. This is worth acknowledging and applauding. Here’s the background:

In late November, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that its side-impact crash tests resulted in battery fires in three Chevrolet Volts (the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle manufactured by GM). However, to date, no actual customers have experienced any fires; the problem has occurred only in the NHTSA tests.

Within just three days, GM CEO Dan Akerson announced a loaner car policy for any Volt owners concerned about safety. The policy was to remain in effect until NHTSA and GM completed further tests to resolve the battery issue. GM was even willing to re-purchase Volts from any fearful owners. Only 33 Volt owners contacted the company for a loaner, according to the vice president for Chevrolet U.S. sales.

Serendipitously for GM, Consumer Reports issued its annual car owner-satisfaction survey a few days after the NHTSA announcement, which awarded the top honors to the Volt. The Volt also remained among the highest-rated cars on the IIHS (Insurance Institute of Highway Safety) annual list announced in mid-December.

Why did the Chevy Volt not experience a media firestorm similar to the one suffered by Toyota in early 2010 due to its (perceived) faulty gas pedals?

GM started this trial by fire from a position of strength, due to its universe of clearly happy Volt customers. Instead of stonewalling the NHTSA report, the company took a proactive stance and quickly implemented a plan to address customer queries before those queries were even made. Happy customers, while perhaps slightly concerned, remained generally satisfied. GM didn’t give them an opportunity to whine, so their complaints didn’t stoke a media fire. The immediate loaner plan and buy-back offer defused the situation before it could get out of hand.

I wondered how this was reflected in social media, so I used a social analytics solution from our client Attensity to analyze the general sentiment around the Chevy Volt crisis in sites such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums and others.

The results using Attensity’s solution showed that neutral comments accounted for 64.7% of Chevy Volt-related discussions in social media over the last month, with many of the comments simply a relay of various media reports, rather than original comments from disgruntled customers.

I found the most commonly used words across social media related to GM and the Volt situation – “GM Volt fire,” “Electric Cars,” “Battery” – to be equally neutral, without proximity to or association with negative terms or expressions of condemnation.

I also tracked the top trending dates around the Volt, and, accordingly, the spikes in chatter over the last 30 days coincided with the major related news announcements shared within social media: the Nov. 25 announcement of the NHTSA investigation; the Nov. 28 Consumer Reports survey; and the Dec. 5 identification of a coolant leak as a possible cause of the battery fires.

Even individual tweets illuminate the generally optimistic attitude toward the Chevy Volt:

Although 2011 sales for the Volt aren’t as high as expected, GM, with continued proactive PR and customer feedback management, looks to “run deep” with a strong future.

UPDATE: As of January 5, 2012, General Motors has advised Volt owners to return their vehicles to the dealer for minor repair. Dealers will add steel to a plate that protects the Volt battery, spreading the force of a crash over a larger area. The repairs — which would fix 8,000 Volts on U.S. roads and another 4,400 still for sale — fall under a “customer service campaign,” which is similar to a safety recall but allows GM to avoid the bad publicity and federal monitoring that come with a recall.

Lisa Hawes can be reached at lhawes@sterlingpr.com. Follow Lisa on Twitter @lisakayhawes.

Photo credit: davydeagle via Flickr