The U.S. auto industry was abuzz Monday over the sudden firing of General Motors’ global marketing chief Joel Ewanick the previous day.
Speculation focused on several advertising deals that Ewanick crafted for the automaker, including one involving the popular Manchester United British soccer team and Chevrolet. The departure did not appear to be a personal issue.
The automaker has said little about the firing, except this statement: “Joel failed to meet the expectations the company has of its employees.”
Ewanick has been silent, commenting only on the Twitter social media site, where he said, “It has been a privilege & honour to work with the GM Team and to be a small part of Detroit’s turnaround. I wish everyone at GM all the best.”
Reuters and the Wall Street Journal said sources familiar with the situation reported Ewanick’s departure was tied to not properly vetting and reporting the financial details about Chevrolet’s sponsorship of Manchester United.
Among the criticisms of the transaction was that the sponsorship did not appear to include Chevrolet’s name on the jerseys of the soccer club’s players. Unlike the major American sports, advertising is a prominent feature of soccer uniforms, giving the sponsors what are essentially kicking and running billboards for television cameras and photographers.
But on Monday, GM and Manchester United announced that Chevrolet will be the club’s shirt sponsor beginning with the 2014/2015 season.
“This relationship is about connecting our brand with the deep-seated emotion that surrounds the team everywhere it goes,” said Alan Batey, GM’s vice president of U.S. sales and service.
GM declined to answer questions about the timing of the announcement and Ewanick’s departure.
GM hired Ewanick as its U.S. marketing chief two years ago, quickly promoting him to head its global marketing business.
Viewed as a marketing whiz in automotive circles, the 52-year-old Ewanick is best known for his work at Hyundai Motor America, where he developed the headline-grabbing Assurance Program during the depths of the Great Recession. That program guaranteed that Hyundai buyers could return their vehicles if they lost their jobs. Only a few hundred customers took advantage of that offer, but it was seen as a marketing triumph that helped Hyundai grab market share from rivals even as auto sales were slumping.
During his three years at Hyundai, Ewanick was named Automotive News’ 2009 marketing all star of the year, Brandweek’s 2009 marketer of the year and Forbes’ chief marketing officer of the year. He left Hyundai for a post as chief marketing officer for Nissan North America before joining GM in May 2010.
Ewanick has not been able to work as much magic at GM, however. The Chevy Runs Deep campaign launched in the fall of 2010 was widely ridiculed. More recently, GM said it would pull $10 million in ads from Facebook, questioning their effectiveness. It also declined to advertise at the Super Bowl, traditionally the advertising industry’s biggest spectacle.
Through June, the automaker has sold a little more than 1.3 million vehicles in the U.S., a 4% gain in a period when the industry has grown sales 15%. GM’s share of the U.S. market fell to 18.1% in the first half of this year from 19.9% a year earlier. The company will report second quarter results this week.
“After seeing what happened at Hyundai and the creativity and recognition that his efforts brought to that aspiring brand, it was hoped that given the massive resources, family of brands, history and heritage of the company, that something extraordinary could be borne out of the fresh-start approach,” said Aaron Bragman, an analyst with IHS Automotive. “But instead, brands continue to struggle with definitions. Advertising has been lackluster and message has been spotty.”
GM shares fell 21 cents, or 1%, to 19.46 in midday trading.