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April 06, 2006

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?


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» Redefining the notion of successful marketing from Standblog
My friend Paul Kim recently mentioned how the new GM marketing campaign, dubbed ChevyApprentice.com was used by environmental activists to get their message out in a very interesting and creative way. I thought this was a complete disaster for GM. [Read More]

» The Web-Powered Control Shift: Social Computing from web2.wsj2.com
The idea of social computing is getting a lot of play these days, most notably this week as folks discuss the fall-out, good and bad, of Chevy's own large-scale experiement in this space, Chevy Apprentice. Forrester's Charlene Li wrote some goo [Read More]

» The Web-Powered Control Shift: Social Computing from web2.wsj2.com
The idea of social computing is getting a lot of play these days, most notably this week as folks discuss the fall-out, good and bad, of Chevy's own large-scale experiement in this space, Chevy Apprentice. Forrester's Charlene Li wrote some goo [Read More]

» Chevrolet Forum from Chevrolet Forum
not excactly a muscle car, but please help.Chevrolet Avalanche Accessory Chevrolet Avalanche Forum Chevrolet Avalanche Part Chevrolet Avalanche R... [Read More]

» Enterprise 2.0 from Michael Platt's WebLog
In the last week there has been a ton of discussion around the take up of Web 2.0 techniques... [Read More]

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Brian Phipps

I share your belief in social computing, but I think you’re being far to charitable to GM in this case. I see very little social computing in what GM is doing with its Chevy Tahoe ad gambit. If this were real social computing, where companies open up and team with customers, GM would not need to present its initiative as a contest with prizes. (That’s a top-down structure where one participates in the contest, but not in GM.)

If GM were serious about social computing, they could easily follow Microsoft, Sun and other technology leaders by opening pipelines between their engineers and customers. Instead of creating a site around a dummy ad campaign, they could create an interactive site (or even a wiki) called “Help us design your next car.” Participants could drag and drop various elements into a design of their choice, with a shared format for ideas, discussion and critiques. *That* would create customers and help build their brand.

One other note: GM apparently has no plans ro release the thousands of Chevy Tahoe submittals to public view. They're effectively locked away. If so, how can GM's efforts be called “social computing?” Participants are not allowed to browse other submittals, or interact with one another on the GM site. That creates a "closed brand," not an "open brand."

Eddie Codel

The real measurement of success will be if people start buying more Tahoes. With GM on the brink of bankruptcy, it doesn't seem like they have much to lose in trying this.


This seems to me to be more of a web 1.0 experience. The viral mode of this has a limited audience and is only one factor.

Perhaps I need to explore this more, but one of the key things to social computing is the user to user interaction and feedback. The sharing tools need to be more than forums and the ability to interact with an engaging computing toolset also seem to be key.

Not to totally disagree with you Charlene, this does have some of those elements. Also, this is a bold move on the company's part, if not even under done.

If they are asking your opinion, how about showing them some of your favorite social computing structures, and web 2.0 type sites. They need to be actively involved in the exchange and use too to really get something like this going.

(Thanks for allowing comments!)


Its questionable whether it is to GM's benefit. All the people who were not going to buy an SUV now know what a Tahoe is, certainly, but it only remains as a symbol of negativity.

It also gave a largely nebulous dissatisfaction with SUV mileage a clear target to go after, and has been effectively organized on sites such as these, which rank anti-GM ads submitted by users all over the nation.

Heavy on the chevy

I agree w/ a previous commenter who said it matters whether this increases sales. Its a nice academic exercise for us on the sidelines, but the bottom line is what counts.

I must say for GM, that bottom line is uncomfortably close.


Well, publicity or not GM is still in financial peril. I hope GM will realize that they are going to need to be more aggressive with alternative fuel and flexi fuel vehicles, and to produce more inspiring designs for vehicles to fix that company. I doubt very seriously that this advertising attempt will make any difference to sales of Tahoes, but it probably gave them some valuable feedback.

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