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Sunday, August 10, 2008

If GM Wants to Look “Green,” it Can’t Skip Events Like HybridFest

Recently, I spent time at HybridFest, a car show dedicated to emerging green technologies and fuel economy. The kind of person who attends HybridFest is that same kind that talks around the water cooler about their MPG and how much money their hybrid has saved them. And this kind of person is exactly who companies like GM need to convince to buy their products.

That’s probably why GM was the #2 sponsor, right after Toyota. That doesn’t explain, however, why GM didn’t show up. Show organizer, Eric Powers, told me that GM representatives were on hand for dinner Friday night to kick off the show, which began officially on Saturday morning, but after that no one saw them.

Instead of putting their floor space at the show to use, GM chose to leave a musty old city bus sitting in the corner looking inconspicuous (see first photo). Not too many people wondered where GM was, but personally, I was excited to see what they’d have at the show to counteract the Toyota party van:

Seeing the GM logo on everything made me sure that at some point I would see GM there. But alas, it was not to be. There was no clash of automotive giants, and no GM reps to talk about upcoming designs with.

So, what happened?

Firstly, let me say that this article is not some cookie-cutter condemnation of GM. I have spent time with GM and discussed their plans, as well as test-driven their HCCI technology, and I can honestly say that there are a lot of smart people at all levels in the company working to rebuild their image and their product lineup as one that is fuel efficient and environmentally friendly.

We all know that GM is going through hard times, posting $15.5B losses and still two years away from releasing the earliest production models of the Volt, which they hope will be their saving grace.

Part of me hoped that GM would come to HybridFest with some surprise mock up of the Volt, or perhaps even one of their drivetrains strapped to the body of another car. I’d also hoped to strike up a conversation with someone from GM about the future of the Chevy Aveo, that small, affordable car that seems to get no media attention and surprisingly bad fuel economy (GM has promised to make it a class leader in 2009 with a total redesign, and I wanted some insight into this).

Another, perhaps pernicious part of me didn’t want Toyota to steal the show. I knew HybridFest would be like a Prius collectors show, but since I knew Honda wouldn’t be there I feared that Toyota would only increase it’s legacy as “the hybrid company.” Obviously, other companies can do it (and Honda did, with the Insight, which was released in the US earlier than the Prius and with better fuel economy), but somehow Prius and hybrid have become pretty much the same thing to some people.

Anyway, one can only assume that all the pressures weighing down on GM right now finally got to them, and caused them to back out. HybridFest is great, but it’s not like the media is buzzing with this story, so there has been little word of why GM suddenly disappeared.

What does this mean for GM?

Well, GM is in a tough place, but this wasn’t the right place to cut corners, I think. As I said earlier, the type of people that go to HybridFest are influencers and pushers. They want to brag about hybrid tech, take their friends on test drives, and change the way people look at fuel consumption. Sure, GM might have only reached a few thousand people, but they missed an opportunity, for just one weekend’s work, to have high-quality interaction with the people they are trying to win over to their side.

By not showing up, HybridFest allowed Toyota to dominate, with the only GM in sight (Honda pun!) being a modified Equinox that showed up with the University of Wisconsin. No one is impressed by a shallow advertising blitz talking about fuel-efficient truck hybrids. What GM needs to do is generate real, meaningful buzz around their products, and they need to do it at the grassroots level or else their efforts will just be passed off as another round of corporate greenwashing.

I will be in contact with the company soon about their future plans, and there marketing strategies, and am excited at the possibility to share that with you, so stay tuned.

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