With its target consumer increasingly turning to imports for high-performance vehicles, GM's Pontiac division had embarked on a brand revival to elevate its image. The launch of the Solstice roadster was a key component.
"The launch was a watershed moment for the brand as we were peaking a product renaissance that had started a few years previously," says Jim Hopson, Pontiac communications manager. "Solstice itself means turning point."
Pontiac had already secured its product's appearance as part of a task on the April 14 episode of The Apprentice. The next day, it was kicking off a 10-day early-order program, with the first 1,000 Solstices featuring exclusive Apprentice badging. It enlisted Weber Shandwick to help promote and tie together the show and early-order program.
The campaign aimed to generate sales of the first 1,000 Solstices and create demand for vehicle orders, but more important to Pontiac was elevating its image.
"The Solstice is an icon vehicle for Pontiac," says Hopson. "It's not about increasing sales volume or making money; it's about establishing a particular image for the brand."
WS concentrated communications efforts on creating buzz about the episode and early-order program and getting media coverage before, the day of, and the day after the episode aired, reaching out to broadcast media in particular.
It also focused on generating dealer traffic through local market publicity tying together the early-order program and The Apprentice.
An embargoed release was sent to key Detroit and national print and wire media to get the word out about the early-order program. Media relations efforts targeted the Detroit automotive/ business press, entertainment media in New York and LA, and local media in key Pontiac markets nationwide.
In addition, former Apprentice cast members were recruited to appear and give interviews at five key Pontiac dealerships the morning the early-order program launched. They included Jen Massey in LA, Amy Henry in Dallas, Kevin Allen in Chicago, Katrina Campins in Miami, and Raj Bhakta in New York.
Bhakta also conducted a radio media tour the morning of the episode, and a wire photo of him with the Solstice was distributed the next day.
"The response that we received was staggering," Hopson says.
The first 1,000 Solstices sold out in 41 minutes, with 7,116 more orders taken over the 10 days.
Hopson says Pontiac had expected to sell the first 1,000 cars over a couple of days and about 2,000 more in the 10-day span.
"This is not a $5 sandwich; it's a $20,000 vehicle," he says. "This is not a decision people tend to make as a snap decision."
The promotion drove traffic into Pontiac dealerships, with orders received from more than 650 dealers in 47 states.
In the first two weeks, more than 180 media hits were generated across 757 outlets, and the radio tour reached 32 million listeners.
Pontiac is expanding the product line to include a performance version of the roadster, the Solstice GXP, which it plans to launch later this summer. Hopson expects the popularity of the Solstice to carry over to the new vehicle, but says the company is not likely to use the same strategy to promote it.
PR Team: GM/Pontiac (Detroit) and Weber Shandwick (Detroit)
Campaign: Pontiac launches the Solstice on The Apprentice
Duration: February to April 2005
This campaign worked because Pontiac and WS realized they were dealing with a "product fusion" situation: one in which a product has to enhance the media property it is associated with, without getting lost in it.
As Hopson says, "You have to be cognizant that whatever PR you're doing has to enhance both brands equally."
The campaign accomplished that by tying together its early-order program promotions with The Apprentice, namely by recruiting past cast members as "spokespeople," and ultimately drove dealer traffic and created buzz about the brand revival.