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18 Days From Cars To Ventilators: The GM Pandemic Pivot Creates New Brand Purpose And Employee Commitment

October 26, 2020 Sarah Cavill

Deborah Wahl, global CMO at General Motors spoke at the 2020 ANA Masters of Marketing Conference: A Virtual Experience about the pivot that GM made to provide PPE for frontline workers during the early stages of the pandemic in the US, and how the brand emerged stronger and even more inspired for the “all electric future” the iconic auto brand envisions. Wahl said 2020 offered “permanent lessons about the role of [GM] brands, shaping social norms and impacting perceptions.”

GM Quickly Pivoted During Covid, Creating Pride And Purpose Internally

Shutterstock_627076676 Indianapolis - Circa April 2017: Chevrolet Automobile Dealership. Chevrolet is a Division of General Motors V

For GM, the larger brand purpose is how to build a more sustainable and accessible world. When COVID-19 hit American shores, and 2020 became a year of reckoning across a variety of issues, the GM brand purpose grew to include public health, social justice and economic inequality. “People look to GM in times of crisis,” said Wahl, “so we wondered how could GM help with healthcare needs?” Mary Barra, CEO of GM, wanted action that benefited employees, communities and suppliers. 

In less than a month, GM was able to convert several of their factories into ventilator manufacturers and mask-making facilities, eventually producing 30,000 ventilators and 10 million masks. “18 days from cars to ventilators,” said Wahl, a mantra that is now frequently repeated at GM as a reminder of what can be done when GM employees feel inspired and committed.

An All Electric Future Drives The Engine Of GM’s Products And Creativity

In 2017, Mary Barra announced a new vision for GM: “A future with Zero Crashes, Zero Emissions, and Zero Congestion.” This vision has led to deep investment in electric batteries, electric vehicles (EV) and autonomous vehicles, with the trials of COVID-19 motivating GM employees in a new way. The pivot to making healthcare supplies elicited “pride and passion” from employees, with Wahl noting, “Once people started to believe we could do it, the creativity really took off.” 

new gmc hummer

When people stopped driving during quarantines, everyone was shown “the dress rehearsal of a world with cleaner air.” Leading GM to accelerate “the production of an electric ecosystem for everyone — for a world that’s cleaner, safer, and more inclusive.” GM intends to have 20 electric vehicles in production by 2023. Already on the road are the recently launched Hummer EV, which sold out immediately, and the Cadillac LYRIQ, a fully electric luxury SUV. Both vehicles run on GM’s Ultium battery. The Ultium is GM’s brand purpose come to life. Affordable, scalable, sustainable and adaptable, the Ultium battery allows GM to create an all electric future. 

“Our team accepted the challenge to transform product development at GM and position our company for an all-electric future,” said Mary Barra, in March 2020 when the batteries were announced. “What we have done is build a multi-brand, multi-segment EV strategy with economies of scale that rival our full-size truck business with much less complexity and even more flexibility.”

As an industry leader, GM wants to set the standard for their business and stand on the principles of their brand purpose. Wahl also acknowledges that in difficult times, it takes a village to be the change. “Times may be divisive, but no one can do it alone. Let’s be all-in on making the changes happen.”

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About the Author

Sarah Cavill

With more than 20 years of writing, editing and reporting experience, Sarah Cavill brings to Digital Media Solutions (DMS) a fine-tuned and diverse set of skills. Her work has been featured in notable publications including The Daily Muse, CBS Local, Techlicious and Glamour magazine. Sarah has a passion for current events and the deep-dive research that goes into the content development and brand identity of DMS Insights. In her role as Senior Marketing Communications Writer, Sarah contributes to the pitching, researching and writing of multiple stories published each week surrounding digital and performance marketing innovations in pop culture, news, social media, branding and advertising.

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