When General Motors Corporation (GM) acquired the commercial marketing rights to the Hummer truck, the civilian version of the U.S. Army’s Humvee, it faced the challenge of promoting a vehicle that was never intended to be sold in high numbers. Part of the solution was to design smaller, less-expensive versions, the H2 and H3, but much of the success would have to depend on the marketing. Rather than turning to a roster of ad agencies it usually worked with, GM hired a young Boston creative boutique, Modernista!, in 2000. The initial goal of the $35 million campaign, begun in August 2001, was to establish Hummer as a luxury brand. Thus, images ofmud-splatteredHummers that played up the vehicle’s off-road capabilities were scrapped in favor of shots that made it seem jewel-like. Once the brand was repositioned, the marketers’ goal was to pitch the lower-priced H2 and H3 to a wider market, hopefully to more women. Factors such as rising gas prices and the perception that the Hummer was oversized for most consumers proved to be major hurdles for the marketers. However, by the end of 2003 the campaign had succeeded in redefining the Hummer brand, and with the introduction of the H3 in 2005, the marketers took on a new challenge: selling the Hummer to a mass market.
The Humvee was designed for the U.S. Army in 1979 by AM General Corp., based in South Bend, Indiana. The 3.5-ton vehicle became a star of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, spurring consumer demand for a civilian version, which was introduced in 1992 as the Hummer. It catered to an exclusive market, as demonstrated by the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the first buyers. The vehicle never received much advertising support; AM General spent less than $1 million on marketing the Hummer in 1999, when it sold about 700 of the trucks. Nevertheless, AM General did enough business to attract the attention of General Motors, and in the end bought the Hummer brand in late 1999. GM signed a seven-year contract with AM General to produce the next generation, GM-designed version, the Hummer H2 sport-utility vehicle (SUV). The agency Modernista! was hired to promote the brand. Prior marketing efforts had played up the military connection and the Hummer’s off-road capabilities, billing the vehicle as ‘‘the world’s most serious 4x4.’’ Modernista! won the account because it was the only agency that attempted to fashion a wider appeal by going beyond the tough-guy, army-truck image. The principals involved in the campaign did not lack experience in selling cars. Modernista!’s cofounder, Lance Jensen, had worked with Hummer’s advertising director, Liz Vanzura, when she was at Volkswagen of America and he was with the Boston-based ad agency Arnold Communications. Both played key roles in developing Volkswagen’s award-winning ‘‘Drivers Wanted’’ campaign. Vanzura commented that, while the Volkswagen ads were aimed at ‘‘cool, young people,’’ her new mission was to sell Hummers to ‘‘cool, rich people.’’
Even before hiring Modernista!, GM had done a great deal of market research. According to Ted Evanoff, writing for the Indianapolis Star, ‘‘In 1999 researchers stumbled across the notion that an unlikely cross-section of America—surgeons, dot-com millionaires, rock stars, high school students, corporate execs—prized their individuality. And they regarded the rugged Hummer as a symbol of individuality, especially compared with the typical sport-utility common in suburbia.’’ Modernista! was given 2,200 pages of market data to distill into an advertising message. The agency was also handed a brand that skewed very much toward males, averaging 50 years in age and with an annual household income of more than $200,000. The target buyer for the less-expensive H2, while still male, was 42 years old on average and had a household income above $125,000. Vanzura told Chris Reidy of the Boston Globe that the coveted audience included ‘‘rugged...