Kudos to Chevy Tahoe: It takes guts to brand with social computing
I've got to applaud Chevy Tahoe's recent foray into social computing with http://www.chevyapprentice.com/. On the site, users can create their own customized video commercial, complete with text and background music. Chevy's intent was to tie into a recent appearance of the Tahoe on "The Apprentice" and give users an opportunity to be in the director's chair.
But then, what could be politely construed as a product manager's nightmare happened --environmentalists used the opportunity to deliver a very different kind of message than what you would normally expect. You can see the results here and here on YouTube.
So were the Chevy brand managers foolish to put out chevyapprentice.com in the first place? Or were they super smart because any buzz is better than no buzz? Well, we get some insight from a post by Ed Peper, Chevrolet's general manager, on Fastlane - here's an excerpt:
A contest of this sort doesn't come without risks. As we expected, people who are opposed to SUVs for a variety of reasons quickly discovered that they were also welcome to participate.
Early on we made the decision that if we were to hold this contest, in which we invite anyone to create an ad, in an open forum, that we would be summarily destroyed in the blogosphere if we censored the ads based on their viewpoint. So, we adopted a position of openness and transparency, and decided that we would welcome the debate.
Ed goes on in the blog post to explain that they understood that there were some people who would never purchase an SUV, and stresses that Chevy tries to make their large trucks as fuel efficient as possible.
Wow. Here is a company that understood going into the campaign the risk of negative publicity and still went ahead with it. Now you can debate whether this is all back-fill, publicity management, but having talked with the folks at GM previously about their approach to social computing initiatives like Fastlane, I think they had a pretty good idea what was going on.
While some people point to this campaign as an example of the failure of viral marketing and social computing, I think it points to a great success. Our definition of social computing is when technology results in power shifting from institutions (like Chevy) to communities (like customers). By losing that control over the brand experience, Chevy actually brought more people into it -- witness the debate over the campaign itself. The environmental and SUV fuel economy debate has always existed outside of the Chevy experience, but by bringing it into chevyapprentice.com, Chevy has harnessed it into a promotional benefit.
So final take away and then a question. If you're going to participate as a marketer in the social computing arena, you've got to have thick skin and be ready to engage in the messy world of your customer's opinions. Marketers that have the guts to turn over their brand to the public will in the end win over their customers.
And now my question(s): Put yourself in Ed Peper's shoes. What would you have done differently, and more importantly, what should marketers eager to tap into social computing techniques take away from this campaign?