Every day, Sonia Maria Green faces the monumental task of "humanizing" the world's largest auto maker. That's her word for the transformation General Motors must accomplish to connect with Hispanic car buyers.
"My job, very simply, is to get Latino consumers to buy one more car, one more truck," says Ms. Green, director of Hispanic diversity marketing and sales at GM. "But this culture is driven by relationships. Take time to establish relationships and you will reap the benefits."
By the time Ms. Green joined GM in 2001, the company's market share among Hispanics had declined 11 points. Worse, research indicated that people perceived the company as big, arrogant, and unapproachably cold. To put a face on the corporation, she recruited her boss, Gary Cowger, president of General Motors North America, to appear in a Spanish-language TV ad. Then she spent most of the first year on the road, talking to dealers about their interactions with Hispanic customers.
"My tendency is to learn from others," Ms. Green says. "My first proposals weren't Sonia Green ideas; they were other people's ideas. That's why I've been successful to date."
"She believes in the strength of the market, and they [GM] have a real driving ethos behind them. They will put their money where their mouth is if they think it will make a bond with the Latin consumer," says Steve Blanco, CEO of Florida-based Accentmarketing, GM's Hispanic advertising agency. "Sonia has moved them in the direction of developing long-term relationships with the market."
Ms. Green's world divides into regions and divisions. Experience and common sense tell her that Mexican Americans in Texas differ from Puerto Ricans in New Jersey, and she tailors her messages accordingly. The fact that she must deliver consistent messages for all GM domestic divisions – Chevrolet, Pontiac, GMC, Saturn, Buick, Cadillac, Hummer, GMAC – only complicates the task. From approving media plans to structuring event sponsorships, she tries to project a consistent image to foster those long-term consumer relationships.
"We have products for every lifestyle, but how do we position our product to cut through the clutter and become the top-of-mind choice?" she asks. "We don't just translate general market creative; we consider the cultural relevance of advertising."
A barrage of new product launches gives marketers plenty of target segments within the Hispanic market. Chevrolet alone recently unveiled 10 new cars in a span of 20 months, and the Spanish-language "Subete" (which GM translates as "join in") campaign is designed to spread the word. Silverado continues as the top-ranked GM vehicle for Hispanics, but the company has high hopes for Aveo, an entry-level car; Colorado, a mid-size pickup; Equinox, a small SUV; and Cobalt for the youth market. Ms. Green reports that Saturn, Cadillac, and even Hummer "are selling now in the Hispanic market."
Moving all this metal is a tough job, but it has a few glamorous moments. For example, Ms. Green participated as an award presenter at the Premios de la Gente® Latin Music Fan Awards broadcast by Telemundo last October.
"When the show aired on TV, the product integration was wonderful," Ms. Green says. "We had celebrities interacting with cars, celebrities visiting dealerships. We need that kind of promotion and grass-roots connection."
Behind the scenes, the Green team handles an enormous workload. Her office reviews and approves all Spanish-language communications from the company, including car catalogs, specification sheets, sales brochures, and advertising. After nearly four years on the job, Ms. Green feels she has the national marketing machine running smoothly, so she has returned to touring the country to help local dealerships.
GM can provide dealers with mountains of data about Hispanic consumers and income by ZIP code, as well as local media options. The company helps to recruit bilingual salespeople and staff, which can be difficult for dealers to accomplish on their own. Also, GM has a toll-free number to pre-approve car loans by phone in Spanish.
But the conversation with dealers quickly turns to comparisons between Hispanics and general-market consumers – an arena where Ms. Green's expertise shines.
Hispanics buy more trucks than cars, and they most value safety, durability, reliability, and pricing, the same as the general market, she says. However, larger Hispanic families mean they need larger vehicles, and usually the car-buying experience occurs as a family activity. Hispanics remain the most loyal consumer segment in the nation, but their loyalty has shifted away from "buy American" toward imports – a reflection of the product qualities mentioned above, according to Ms. Green.
Whether meeting with the sales staff in a Chevy dealership, or back at GM headquarters in Detroit, Ms. Green spends her days in a white male-dominated industry. In addition, she must cope with GM's infamous corporate culture, which automotive Web site TheCarConnection.com once described as "corporate infighting that [makes] the politicking on Survivor look docile."
"I've had to learn to navigate through this," says Ms. Green. "It's tough because I realize I have skills these guys don't. I feel empowered to make decisions on advertising and stand up for what I know will work, but it hasn't been easy. Kudos to [GM North America president] Gary Cowger for addressing diversity and bringing in experts to help the company."
Inside the company Ms. Green is known as "the Avon lady" because of her previous position as Avon's director of the U.S. Hispanic marketing division. She also managed operations in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. After leaving Avon, she served as president of Beauty Group International and general manager of Ingram Micro before joining GM.
In the community, she currently serves on the board of Las Madrinas, a mentoring program for Hispanic girls, and on the National Task Force on Early Childhood Education for Hispanics. She previously served as president of the National Hispanic Corporate Council and on the boards of the National Hispanic Leadership Institute and the Hispanic Institute for Research & Development.
While GM has made up some of the 11-point decline among Hispanics, it hasn't rebounded to sales levels of the late 1990s – but then, Ms. Green hasn't yet finished with her brand transformation. Her determination to persevere is one reason Mr. Blanco of Accentmarketing calls her "a champion of the market."
"She's a tough taskmaster, and we've butted heads on a number of projects," he admits. "But I will tell you this: When she believes in something, she will push it to the end."
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