Relationship vs. Conversation

In the last couple of weeks there’s been a metric ton of discussion around the Chevy Tahoe Apprentice campaign. If you’ve been on a desert island and haven’t heard the overview, Chevy recaps it this way:

By now, many of you have heard about the Chevy Tahoe’s appearance on a recent episode of the Apprentice. As a tie-in to the TV show, we thought it would be cool to give a wider community of folks an opportunity to compete against one another on the web in a similar format. We proceeded to launch www.chevyapprentice.com.

Contestants are given a variety of images to work with and are given the ability to splice together the visual elements over which they can display their own advertising copy.

Great concept, and in terms of numbers Chevy has had a great response. But here’s the rub – a number of the commercials that users created were anti-SUV, some anti-Chevy. Someone even created a Web site to track the buzz around the negative commercials.

GM responds.

On the surface, this program seems like an utter failure with bevy of media and blogosphere attention focused on the idea that this program did more damage than good to the brand. Some critics, supposed internet experts, have railed on GM for not understanding the internet culture.

“It’s a classic case of how an major corporation doesn’t understand the Internet and doesn’t respond in Internet time” — Harry Fuller, News.com executive editor.

 

I disagree (and I’m not alone). Here’s why.

In a discussion with Jackie Huba I had made a reference to this campaign being the opening of a conversation between GM and consumers. Jackie responded:

If GM had wanted to engage in a actual conversation with people, they would have set up other mechanisms: online forums, special feedback blog, in-person roundtables, customer advisory boards, etc.

This stuck out to me in a big way because none of these solutions really seemed to sit right in my head. I realized that this isn’t about having a single conversation, or even a series of conversations. This is about building a relationship.

Since I run most of my thinking about company/consumer interaction through the “how does this compare to the world of real-life dating” filter, I had to do the same here.

In real-life dating, conversations can be the beginning or one of many support methods for the relationship. The relationship is a deeper, more meaningful connection between two entities (person/person, company/customer), whereas a conversation is simply a self-contained element of something larger.

Like real-world relationships, not every conversation is an easy one. Not every conversation is “on strategy”. Sometimes we have to talk to our spouse about negative feelings or subjects. When everything is always rosy we tend to wonder what’s wrong.

But at the end of the day, the collection of these conversations (and other insights) is what helps us define our perceptions of that other entity. It’s as much about how someone reacts as it is what they say.

Jackie Huba said in her comments on the campaign:

SUVs are widespread, but controversial; Chevy successfully created a feedback and broadcast mechanism for the SUV vigilantes.

With due respect to Jackie, I think this is where she gets it wrong. There was a mechanism for people to share vigilante info, yes; but how successful was that? The vast majority of the media and blogosphere attention was focused around the way GM handled the situation. GM has been very smart in how they’ve handled the situation, but I don’t think they were smart enough to have planned it. And in some ways that’s for the best. I once heard the quote “When times are hard, we find out what we’re truly made of”. We’ve seen what GM is truly made of, and it’s three things:

  • Respect for consumers
  • The desire to not shy away from tough issues
  • An understanding of the way the blogosphere thinks

Relationships aren’t easy to build, nor are they built quickly. It took several years of interacting with the LEGO community before they believed I was sincere and honest. I had to continually work to prove that I (and the company behind me) was honestly interested in building a relationship. As Karl said:

Have you ever got in a fight with someone and ended up much better friends? Well I wonder if all the people out there who are slapping GM around with the Chevy Apprentice “negative ads” aren’t actually putting more of a human face on GM? After we slap around the bully aren’t we now somewhat more connected to them? They respect us more, and we realize that they are just a product of their bad upbringing.

Is this deeper relationship helping to move the needle on sales? I have no idea, but personally I’m more interested in looking at the Tahoe that I would have been in the past. I have a lease coming up for renewal soon and would love to get an SUV again. Seeing behind the curtain I’m now connected to what’s happening in the minds of the folks at GM when it comes to the environment – namely that they’re serious about the claims they’re putting forth. Don’t get me wrong; I truly believe that if environ friendly vehicles don’t sell, they’ll drop them like hot potatoes. But I believe that there is truth behind the claims that they’re making.

Kudos to GM for their understanding, but more importantly their commitment to this relationship building process through the hard times as well as the easy.

Additional discussion: 1 2 3