With its laughably low fuel economy and boxy, military-inspired design, GM’s Hummer brand came to represent the worst excesses of North American automakers (and drivers) before being discontinued in 2010. Variously described as “mastodons of the highway” and “pollution machines,” Hummers became a frequent target of environmentalists and, ultimately, a casualty of rising fuel costs.
Hummer’s Canadian sales peaked at 2,002 units in 2006 according to data from the automotive sales and statistics aggregator GoodCarBadCar.com, falling to just 168 by 2010. The brand’s downfall in the U.S. was similarly precipitous, plummeting from 71,524 units in 2006 to 3,812 by 2010.
Its legacy might have been as a symbol of human disregard for the environment and wasteful consumption. But more than a decade later, Buick GMC Canada brand director Michael MacPhee says says that the Hummer, newly resurrected as a zero-emission electric “supertruck,” is a bold representation of what he calls the company’s “electrified future” that ladders up GM’s stated objective of a future with zero-emissions, zero crashes and zero congestion.
On the surface, there might seem to be a gulf between typical EV owners and big-ass SUV drivers that not even a Hummer could traverse. But MacPhee says that by catering to non-traditional EV users, GMC could potentially enjoy first-mover advantage in what he describes as a “white space” within the truck segment.
“If we’re going to step back and truly focus on an electrified future, we have to appeal to a customer base that is organically driven to an internal combustion engine,” he says. “They’re looking for a truck-like experience that can only be enabled through a truck-like platform,” he says.
“We think of [the EV segment] as only small compact cars, but it has to be so much more to meet Canadian consumer demand. To get the volume out there and really make a statement on EVs, we need to appeal to customers who today aren’t thinking about electrified vehicles.”
A 2019 Government of Canada report from the Canada Energy Regulator described what it called “the hidden potential of the electric truck market,” noting that Canadians purchased 2.5 trucks for every car sold in 2018. It noted that there are currently no electric pick-ups and “relatively few” electric SUVs available in Canada, although companies are shifting their EV focus towards SUVs and crossovers. “The upcoming years will provide valuable insight into Canadians’ willingness to adopt EVs if more models become available,” said the report.
MacPhee says that the convergence between the environmentally conscious consumers who are supporting the EV market and truck/SUV fans has yet to occur, largely because no automaker has stepped up to meet that need. “That’s exactly what we set out to do with this vehicle.”
The core audience for the Hummer EV, he says, is people who require “off-road credentials and capability,” and are seeking lifestyle experiences that can be enabled through those characteristics. “But they also want the freedom to know that they’re not using any fuel,” he adds. “There are a lot of [these] consumers there, [but] there just hasn’t been a supply. We’ve got a tremendous opportunity with this vehicle.”
The Hummer EV also meets the needs of other driver segments, says MacPhee. Its four-wheel steering capabilities, for example, enable it to “crab walk” sideways, providing the kind of maneuverability that appeals to city dwellers, while its ability to rocket from 0-100km/h in just three seconds appeals to drivers who prize performance. “That’s faster than a Ferrari… and you’re doing it in a format that has so much greater capability,” says MacPhee.
GMC teased the Hummer EV with “Quiet Revolution,” a Super Bowl ad featuring NBA superstar LeBron James at the start of the year, but formally unveiled the vehicle last week with a six-minute livestream that included a partnership with Twitter Canada.
The combination of a highly specific driver profile and a rumoured MSRP of US$79,995 for the base model meant that a traditional mass-media campaign was likely never going to be an option for the Hummer EV. MacPhee says the online-first nature of the program is simultaneously representative of an internal shift in Buick GMC Canada’s marketing approach, as well as an acknowledgement of the new reality created by the pandemic.
“We needed our most innovative product to come to life in one of the most innovative ways,” he told The Message. “We needed a solution that wasn’t just going to be another auto show reveal… because we know that’s impractical with where we are right now.”
But the marketing plan developed by Carat Canada and Leo Burnett also reflects the growing role social in building buzz and awareness.
Twitter was selected as one of the livestream channels (the video also played on GM’s owned and operated channels) because of the outsized role it plays in cultural moments and conversation, says Carat account director Liz Donovan. In the wake of the Super Bowl preview ad, Twitter was where people congregated to discuss how the Hummer EV might look, what might set it apart from its predecessor, etc.
“There was a conversation going on, and we needed to be… a key stakeholder in that conversation, as opposed to a passive listener knowing that conversation was going to go on with or without us,” she says.
The spot itself is soundtracked by a Trent Reznor cover of Led Zeppelin’s thunderous 1970 hit “The Immigrant Song,” which tells of Viking hordes coming “from the land of ice and snow” to plunder and pillage. There’s no quantitative evidence for this, but it just might be the most Hummer-appropriate song ever.
While the live event was hosted by GMC’s U.S. operation, it also featured a made-in-Canada component developed by Carat in the form of a “Like to Remind” teaser campaign. That was followed by a second piece of communication inviting people to set a reminder to watch the live unveiling on Twitter.
— GMC Canada (@GMCcanada) October 15, 2020
About 4,000 Canadians opted-in to receive the reminder, with nearly 5,000 people ultimately watching the video. “Not only did people tune in once they raised their hand, but they also shared the video or watched it multiple times,” she says. Worldwide, the livestream and subsequent replays garnered more than five million views on Twitter within the first 24 hours of the reveal. The completion rate for the full six-minute video was 10.4%, says Donovan.
Internal Twitter data suggests that the program did its part in arousing Canadians’ curiosity, with mentions of Hummer on the platform increasing by 550% on launch day, and a 15x increase in the number of daily mentions of Buick GMC Canada’s Twitter handle (@GMCcanada) during the month of October.
Live-streaming is a growing business for Twitter, which ran eight separate live-stream events in the U.S. alone last week. “We’ve definitely seen a huge surge in brands joining the live conversation on Twitter,” says Nina Ahmadi, senior client partner with Twitter Canada. “We have a leaned-in audience, and that’s where people are coming to get their news.”
Production of the Hummer EV will start in the Fall of 2021, with Canadian sales launching in Fall 2022. Buick GMC Canada started taking reservations for 2021 sales on Oct. 20, and sold out the slots within the first 10 minutes, says MacPhee. “It surpassed our expectations, but it also pointed to the consumer demand for this vehicle format and the utility they’re looking for,” he says. “We think we’ve got an amazing white-space opportunity for an unmet customer demand.”
Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s Tesla brand has also released images of its EV truck the Cybertruck, and companies including Ford and the U.S. start-ups including Rivians and Lordstown Motors are all in various stages of development. The next great battle in automotive promises to be electric.