Last year I interviewed the head of Marketing for the Smart Car, and he said that of all the smart things the Smart team did, one of the smartest was to create an online social network for Smart car enthusiasts. Long before Smarts were even available in the United States, 50,000+ enthusiasts where busy buzzing up the brand, customizing their vehicles, and meeting other Smart-type people.
When the car finally shipped, the Smart dealership knew just where to go to pluck its first enthusiastic buyers. The strategy paid off, resulting in advance sales that surprised even the optimistic Smart sales team.
Chevy it seems is taking a queue from the Smart playbook. With the long-anticipated (some would say long-overdue) Chevy Volt (aka the 'Prius killer') the auto manufacturer is hoping to garner the same advance loyal following that Smart accomplished back in 2007-2008 with the VOLTage website.
The site is chock full of content -- videos, photos, forums, groups and even an @ChevyVoltAge twitter feed. But is it enough to create the social media buzz that GM is looking for?
I'm doubtful. The Smart car had a few advantages that Chevy lacks. For one, the it was already being sold in Europe before it came to the U.S. It was an underdog car -- it had to jump though special crash-testing hoops to be admitted into the U.S. and this naturally conjured a group of stalwart enthusiasts demanding the vehicle with its then unheard of 60 MPG rating.
There was also credibility. Smart was sold by Mercedes in Europe and there was not doubt in anyone's mind that the technology was real. With the anger over the GM bailout and the general impression that GM isn't capable of running a traditional car company, much less a high-tech one, many wonder if the much more complicated plug-in hybrid Volt will even make it to the market.
Then there is looks. The Smart Car, like the VW Bug and the Mini Cooper, while not beautiful is certainly cute, or at least highly unique in terms of body styling. The Volt started out that way (compare before and after below) but it has ended up looking a more like... well, a Chevy.
Lastly price.... the Volt was originally intended as a Camry Hybrid competitor. Now it is more in the Lexus range with a $30,000++ sticker price.
So as cool as I think the Volt is (at least the concept model I saw at the auto show) I don't think GM is very likely to see a lot of online enthusiasm until it hits the lot.
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