CEO Breakfast: Branding-Social Media on the Menu

Fritz Henderson-Barbara Rozgonyi

It’s not everyday you get an invitation to have breakfast with a CEO – of a major company. But, that’s what six Chicago social media types got to do this week.
[Note: GM paid for my breakfast and parking.]

We met with Fritz Henderson, CEO of GM. After we introduced ourselves, we got to know Fritz, whose former addresses include Asia, Brazil and Switzerland. Now in his 25th year at GM, he has 14 more to go until he matches his father’s 39 years as a GM employee. Being GM’s CEO is a job he always wanted, but taking the company through bankruptcy wasn’t what he imagined. As leaders go, Fritz comes across as dedicated to his brand, his company and his employees.

Fritz was there to answer our questions. There was no presentation, no sales pitch. Only answers from Fritz and a small group of GM execs who were in Chicago for a regional dealer’s meeting, which followed our conversation. Hundreds of dealers had to wait while Fritz took time to let us take pictures.

First up – the size of cars.

“Don’t tell big it can’t be small.” Susan Docherty, GM vice president said.

Americans are catching onto the value of smaller cars, even for larger families. What’s taking so long? In comparison to Europe and other countries, our gas prices are relatively low, we’re not taxed as much and we have wide open spaces. We do like to drive, don’t we?

[My favorite GM car: a shiny black brand new Buick Century, loaded and just what I needed, as a successful sales rep, to transport my clients. Length of ownership: 8 days. Tip: when you buy a new car, take the sticker off. Date of loss: stolen on April 1 – no one believed me. The car was never recovered. Upside: I won a WXRT writing contest – and a car alarm for my next car, an Olds-loaded, of course.]

GM focuses on marketing four core brands through several channels.
Dealers bring in the personal one-on-one touch and build relationships, but more and more those relationships begin online. In looking at the Buick LaCrosse site, you can build a car, compare competition and enter your customer information, which opens a relationship between GM and the prospect. GM isn’t the only car maker that does this. The day before this meeting, I listened to Honda’s ad:tech Chicago presentation about their online marketing.

The tricky part for Honda, GM and even companies like Domino’s Pizza is managing – or not – how dealers represent their dealership on social media platforms like twitter and Facebook. A strong dealer may be seen as the brand. Even though GM markets four individual brands, the GM collective presence on social media platforms is under gmblogs.

At ad:tech Chicago, corporate social responsibility was mentioned as a hot trend. So I asked GM: What are you doing in this area?
Hummer and Red Cross was mentioned as an older example. After the meeting, I found GM’s corporate responsibility site. This could be a huge area of opportunity, not just for GM, but for any company looking to make a different in their industry. [That’s why we advise our clients to partner with charities and talk about how they’re actively being responsible in areas like environmentalism.] GM says their plants are environmentally efficient and they use recycled materials. Consumers want to make smart choices; they more information they have, the better buying decisions they can make.

Video Messaging: How GM uses recycled materials

Because GM said the last six to eight months have changed so much, I asked what’s new in media relations and communications. Traditionally, GM would bring in a large group of media for a car launch. Now, they’re moving to more localized and regional hands-on events that save money and give the media better product access. Here’s a look back at how GM managed bankruptcy crisis communications.

Thanks to MJ Tam of Chicagonista for putting me on the guest list and to GM for the honor of being at the table along with Liz Strauss, Hope Bertram, MJ Tam, Blagica Bottigliero and Jenny Pilar.

If you could have breakfast with any CEO, who would it be? What would you ask them?

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