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Chevrolet is the lead brand in the portfolio of global auto giant General Motors. Always a key component to the overall portfolio, it became the central brand in the restructured GM during 2009, contributing as much as 70% of total volumes by that year's end (and even more by the end of 2017). Chevrolet holds a special place in American popular culture, arguably the best loved car marque in the country's history. As the company's 2003 marketing campaign proudly boasted "They don't write songs about Volvos". Instead GM managed to compile a list of around 200 songs which feature Chevys, most of them making some reference to the golden age of the 1950s, a period when the brand was at its peak, seeming to epitomize America's freewheeling spirit and the new rock 'n' roll era. Yet a slump in US sales in 2008 and 2009 prompted significant changes in Chevrolet's future profile. In the latter year, international sales of the Chevrolet brand overtook domestic for the first time in history, although the vast majority of those sales were of models designed and produced by GM's Korean subsidiary, then known as Daewoo. Chevrolet's US sales have recovered since then, but its global profile has also soared, especially in developing markets such as Brazil and China. Not in Europe, though. It was withdrawn from that region in 2013 to stop it undermining sales of GM's local brands Opel and Vauxhall, until they were sold off in 2017.
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Chevrolet is GM's biggest brand, and currently the world's 6th biggest automobile marque, down from 4th in 2013. Worldwide sales peaked in 2013 at just under 5m units, but have been steadily declining since then following the brand's withdrawal from Western Europe (see below). For 2018, the total number of units had fallen to just over 4.0m cars and light trucks. International markets have very different requirements from the US, and as a result, the Chevrolet brand has begun to develop two quite different faces. In the US, it is still best-known for heavy-duty trucks and SUVs, whereas in its remaining international territories the brand is defined by compact and even sub-compact small cars. Yet even American buyers have begun to see the appeal of Chevrolet's newer small cars, and the compact Cruze sedan was a surprise hit in the US after its launch in 2011.
Chevrolet has enjoyed a significant rebound in the US since 2009, which marked a low point after several years of decline. That year, the brand sold a combined total of 1.34m units in its home country, down by just over a quarter on the year before, and a sad comparison to the record levels of almost 2.8m vehicles sold in 2004. However, global economic recovery encouraged a resurgence after 2010. US sales reached a post-2008 peak of 2.13m vehicles in 2015 before slipping back in 2016 to just under 2,096,510 vehicles. That placed Chevrolet, as usual, as the #2 brand in the US behind Ford, and ahead of Toyota.
Recent increases in sales in the US came despite the widely publicised role that Chevrolet vehicles in general played in a defect scandal which damaged GM's reputation during 2014. Faulty ignition switches fitted in several models, but primarily the older Chevrolet Cobalt passenger car, were linked to a number of fatal crashes. The switches were found to have accidentally disabled airbags causing more than 100 driver and passenger deaths. Worse still was evidence that engineers had been aware of the fault but had failed to report it promptly.
Light trucks and SUV crossovers still account for more than half of Chevrolet volumes. The cornerstone of the US business is the Silverado full-size pickup, Chevrolet's top-seller at 575k units in 2016 and the overall #2 model in the US behind the Ford F Series, the long-time champion. The Equinox crossover SUV is another strong seller, now Chevrolet's #2 model with units of 242k, and the #15 seller in the US overall in 2016. (Sales for the Equinox slipped by almost 13% in the US from the year before.)
The passenger car range was for years led by traditional favourites the Impala and Malibu. Both continued to deliver satisfactory performance, but were for a while surpassed by the extraordinary popularity of the Cruze compact sedan, already tried and tested in Europe and Asia in advance of its US launch towards the end of 2010. Although initial sales were slow, they suddenly took off during 2011, reaching a new high of 273k units in 2014. That made it the #2 model in the overall portfolio behind Silverado. Since then though, sales of the Cruze have declined, while the Malibu staged a strong recovery. For 2016, Malibu was Chevrolet's #3 model at 228k units, up sharply on the year before to remain among the Top 20 models in the US. The Cruze slipped to 189k, just outside the Top 25 sellers. These were followed by the fullsize crossover Traverse at 117k, the Colorado pickup at 109k and Tahoe SUV, which rose to 103k.
No other brand topped 100k units, but the company has had some success with small cars in the wake of the Cruze. The Aveo initially launched in 2007, but sales flagged quickly. It was relaunched in 2010 with a new design as the Sonic, and after a slow start in 2011, sales boomed in 2012. The model hit a new personal best in 2014 of almost 94k units, just behind the Tahoe truck.
The group's first electric car, the Volt, went into full distribution in October 2010 but its appeal has remained very limited as far as American buyers are concerned. The group had set itself a sales target of 10,000 cars for the first three months on-sale, but the actually figure fell some way short at 7,671 vehicles. The model's high cost, even after a government subsidy, and limited range put off many buyers, as did a report from safety regulators that the car carried a risk of catching fire if its battery pack was damaged in an accident. This fault was corrected at the beginning of 2012, but sales remain modest. After ups and downs, sales reached a new high of almost 25k in 2016. It was overtaken by a smaller model, the Spark, which topped 35k in 2016. In 2016 the group introduced an upgraded version of the Volt under the name Bolt, with a greatly extended range capacity of 200 miles on a full battery.
In Canada, Chevrolet is the #4 brand behind Ford, Toyota and Honda with sales of 151k units in 2016. The Silverado only just scrapes into the top ten models, out-sold by both the Ford F-Series and Fiat Chrysler's Ram pick-up.
Chevrolet retains a special place in the affections of American consumers, with a brand image unrivalled by any other domestic brand. However, in some ways that heritage for a while actually threatened GM's attempts to boost the profitability of the brand, and there were signs in 2010 of minor clashes between the group's business imperatives and the brand's popular image. One such incident was an attempt by Chevrolet brand managers to phase out the brand's "Chevy" nickname. A memo was circulated in June 2010 to group sales staff warning them that they would be fined for referring to the brand by anything other than its full name of Chevrolet. That story led to a popular outcry among consumers, forcing the company to apologise.
The brand also made headlines as a result of a badly handled change of advertising agency. After years at the Campbell-Ewald agency, GM announced plans to shift the account to Publicis in Spring 2010. However, before the ink was even dry on that arrangement, GM's newly appointed marketing chief Joel Ewanick cancelled that appointment and instead placed the account with Goodby Silverstein, an agency he had worked with before on several occasions. Publicis was not informed of that change until after it had appeared in the trade press, causing a ripple of resentment throughout the industry. However Ewanick too was ousted two years later, apparently after agreeing unauthorised marketing commitments with sponsorship partners. Further changes to advertising assignments followed.
During the 2000s Chevrolet also became widely available in Europe. Prior to 2003, small numbers of US-made Chevrolets, mostly pickups and Corvettes, were imported into Europe by independent distributor Kroymans, based in the Netherlands. In 2004, GM introduced the Chevrolet brand in Russia through a partnership with local manufacturer Avtovaz, makers of the Lada, and by 2007 Chevrolet had become the country's top-selling non-domestic brand. Russian sales of Chevrolet jumped by 49% in 2011 and another 18% in 2012 to 205,000, making it the brand's 4th biggest market, while the tiny ancillary market of Uzbekistan notched up almost another 123,000 units. At the same time the marque spread widely across Eastern and Central Europe with the introduction of imported models from recently acquired Daewoo. GM launched Chevrolet in Western Europe in 2005, rebadging the existing Daewoo range. The Chevrolet line-up for Europe then included the Spark (which replaced the old entry-level Matiz), the small Aveo, compact Cruze sedan, Captiva SUV and mid-size Epica. However sales remained considerably smaller than the better established Opel (and Vauxhall) marques.
Perhaps the biggest change in Chevrolet's ongoing development has come from the fact that, in 2009, international sales overtook domestic for the first time in the brand's history, with a combined total of more than 2m units sold, although the model range varies dramatically from region to region. That gap continued to widen, with non-US sales peaking at 3.1m in 2012, before a dip in 2014 to around 2.8m. Rapid growth in China, where GM has joint ventures with local manufacturers SAIC and Wuling, established that country as the brand's #2 market for the first time in 2013, and another 10% jump in 2014 took the total to a high 717k units. That growth didn't last, though, and sales have slipped back since then to 539k units for 2016. Top-seller is the Chevrolet Sail, a compact designed specially for China to look quite similar to the VW Golf. Even with those sales declines, China remains well ahead of Chevrolet's next most important market, Brazil, where it overtook Fiat to become the overall top-seller in 2016. All auto sales have come under intense pressure in Brazil in recent years, but Chevrolet has lost less ground than many of its rivals. Chevrolet units slipped by around 11% in 2016 to 346k vehicles. Chevrolet's top-selling model in Brazil, and also the overall #1, is the Onix, a sub-compact similar to the old Corsa model made by Opel/Vauxhall. Mexico was the brand's next biggest market at 295k vehicles in 2016. It was the country's #2 brand behind Nissan.
In a major about-turn, GM said in 2013 that it would stop importing volume models from Korea to Europe by the end of 2015, effectively mothballing the Chevrolet brand in the region. Instead it said it would devote its energy to boosting performance of its struggling Opel and Vauxhall brands, whose sales had to some extent been cannibalised by the US brand. It said at first that it would continue to market Chevrolet in Russia in the partnership with Avtovaz. However, that decision was itself revised in early 2015 as a result of the fast-declining Russian auto market. The group announced plans to withdraw most low-end Chevrolet models from Russia, though it will continue to import more expensive US models, and press ahead with the entry-level Niva car produced by Avtovaz. The sale of Opel and Vauxhall in 2017 was accompanied by a decision by GM to withdraw from India and South Africa as well, which will further impact on total Chevrolet sales.
The brand has ramped up its promotional spending in recent years. In May 2012, GM agreed a five-year deal with Manchester United to establish Chevrolet as the official car partner of the British football club. This was expanded two months later with a new deal in which Chevrolet succeeded Aon as MUFC's shirt sponsor. That deal commenced in 2014 when Aon's term expired and will run for at least seven years, with a total value of around $650m. Ironically, the start of the global sponsorship coincided with the beginning of the Chevrolet brand's withdrawal from Europe. The brand has maintained its close relationship with MUFC, and indeed with soccer generally, now with a focus on Asia, South America, and women's soccer in the US. Chevrolet has also been the official vehicle of Major League Baseball in the US since 2005, and was the single biggest advertiser in televised US sports broadcasting during 2014. Part of this is an ongoing promotional partnership with sports cable channel ESPN.
In 2015, Chevrolet was the third most prolific brand for celebrity endorsements and sponsorships, behind only Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs. Events included the #BestDayEver alternative April Fool's Day in the US, which earned support from Alec Baldwin, Kelly Clarkson, Olivia Wilde and others. It also sponsored the Disney movie Tomorrowland, earning it several photo opportunities with George Clooney.
The man after whom Chevrolet is named was only associated with the marque for two or three years. Swiss-born Louis Chevrolet arrived in the US (by way of France and Canada) in the early years of the 20th century. A mechanic by trade he was suddenly thrown into the public eye when he broke the US land speed record in a 1905 road race, and he proceeded to win a series of other races over the next five years, becoming something of a celebrity. In 1911, William Durant, an often reckless entrepreneur who had been ousted as chairman of General Motors a year earlier, commissioned Chevrolet to build a car of his own. Durant's plan was to capitalise on Chevrolet's fame to sell the new vehicle to the public. According to one legend, the famous Chevrolet bow-tie logo was a windswept version of the cross in the centre of Louis Chevrolet's Swiss flag. Another story has it that Durant copied the design from the wallpaper in his Paris hotel room.
Ironically, Chevrolet's design, launched as the Classic Six, proved bigger and more expensive than Durant had wanted. The two men dissolved their partnership in 1913, but Durant kept rights to the name, launching a smaller, cheaper Baby Grand in 1914 and the hugely successful Four Ninety (named after its selling price of $490) a year later. With the cash generated from this triumph, Durant was able to seize back control of General Motors in 1915, and merged the two companies in 1918. Over the next few years the rivalry between the Ford and Chevrolet brands intensified. Chevrolet overtook Ford for the first time in sales in 1927, and although pole position swapped back and forth over the next few years, the challenger brand took a firm grasp on the prize in 1936 and held on to the title of the country's best-selling car for the next 50 years. That reign ended in 1986 when a series of labour disputes caused Chevrolet to stumble, relinquishing leadership of the US market to the Ford marque.
Meanwhile, GM gradually began to extend the brand into international markets. GM had been manufacturing cars in Latin America since the 1930s, but introduced the Chevrolet brand there for the first time in the late 1960s with the Opala model, followed by the Chevette. In the 1980s, the Latin American business was linked with Opel in Europe, and launched the latter's Corsa, as well as other European-designed models. In 2001 the group agreed a joint venture with Russian company Avtovaz, the manufacturer of Lada cars, to make Chevrolets locally in Russia. The first model, the Niva 4x4, was introduced in 2003. Following the takeover of Daewoo, the group also began importing selected smaller Daewoo models into Eastern and Central Europe under the Chevrolet name, and then announced a full rebranding of Daewoo in Western Europe as well from 2005.
Meanwhile, in 2004, Chevrolet enjoyed its best year in North America since the late 1980s. This reflected the launch of "An American Revolution", the promotion which launched on News Year's Eve 2003, and ran until midway through 2005. By the end of that period the brand had launched no less than 10 new cars and trucks, including a completely updated passenger car line-up with a stronger emphasis on smaller cars, a new midsize pickup, three innovative utility and crossover vehicles and two new "halo" vehicles, designed to grab consumer attention and encourage interest in the general range.
January 2004 saw the launch of the new Colorado truck, the entry level Aveo (based on Daewoo's Kalos, and imported from Korea) and the eye-catching Chevy SSR, the world's first convertible sports pickup truck. These were followed by the Equinox compact utility vehicle, Uplander crossover sport van and the new convertible Corvette, the world's first volume production sportscar when it was introduced in 1957, and now in its 6th generation. A new premium small car, Cobalt, arrived at the end of the year, designed ultimately to replace the existing Cavalier model. New launches for 2005 included the new Impala and the HHR, a crossover car/truck. The Malibu midsize sedan was successfully redesigned in 2007, earning the title as North American passenger car of the year for 2008.
Yet despite 2004's record performance and strong new model launches, US sales slumped again in the wake of brutal competition on pricing as well as a consumer shift away from high gas-consumption vehicles. After a 10% fall in 2006, US unit sales for 2007 fell by a further 6% to 2,265,641 vehicles, with passenger cars down 5% to under 757,000 units, and truck sales almost 7% lower at just over 1.5m units. However Ford's sales falls were steeper, with the result that Chevrolet reclaimed its lead over its long time rival. Both companies were however overtaken by Toyota, which became America's best-selling automobile brand of 2007 for the first time, with sales of just under 2.3m vehicles.
Last full revision 5th December 2017
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