6 Strategic Mistakes GM Made With the Chevrolet Bolt (Part 5): Brand confusion (Volt versus Bolt and Chevrolet).

Chevrolet Volt and Bolt

While less critical than the other mistakes, I believe GM made two potential brand errors.

I love the name “Bolt.” I also love the name “Volt.” But as an EV advocate I know in my sleep the difference between the two models as well as BEVs and PHEVs. The average car buyer does not.

While I don’t believe any research on this naming confusion exists, my own informal conversations with a friend who owns a Bolt and non-EV expert friends revealed that many people don’t know the difference between the Volt and Bolt, let alone what the difference is between a “PHEV” and BEV.

To understand this better, I conducted a small survey of 67 US consumers on social media, which while not statistically valid, nonetheless confirmed for me the confusion I was Survey difference between hybrid, PHEV and BEVseeing in conversations.

The Google search engine seems to be a bit confused. For several searches I’ve conducted involving the Chevrolet Bolt, the organic search results often mix in links for the Volt. The second organic result for a search on “Chevrolet Bolt” in fact is for Volt (good for Chevrolet, but confusing for searchers.)

Google Search Results - Chevrolet Bolt-Volt

In response to my question about the potential confusion, GM responded: “There is an instant familial recognition with the two names and with the reputation for quality and durability Volt has earned, Bolt EV honors that in both name and service.”

Secondly it’s a Chevrolet. During the 1920s GM CEO Alfred Sloan was attributed with the aphorism “a car for every purse and purpose” that described GM’s integrated, multi-brand marketing strategy. Each of the GM brand’s products was to be focused on one segment, with Chevrolet at the low end of the market and Cadillac at the high end.

While GM’s portfolio of auto brands has been slimmed down over the last two decades, Chevrolet is still the entry-level brand and Cadillac the luxury division. So why did GM choose to launch its supposed world-beating 238-mile range, $40,000 EV under the low-end Chevrolet brand?

With EV sales hovering just under 1 percent in the US and now at 4.8 percent in California, American EV buyers are still comprised of “Innovators” and “Early Adopters.” These buyers are characterized by wanting the latest and coolest technologies and/or products that make a statement or achieve some higher purpose. Or, as we saw with the Nissan LEAF in Georgia a few years ago, they will exchange shortcomings (e.g., short range) if the price is right.

An electric Chevrolet Bolt, even a really good one, at this stage of the market is simply not going to excite most early adopters. Both the Volt and the Bolt are indeed succeeding at attracting buyers who would never have considered purchasing at Chevrolet. And that is a good thing for the brand.

GM’s response to my question about “Why launch the Bolt as a Chevrolet?”: “The Bolt EV breaks the affordability barrier for a long-range EV and delivers on our promise to make electrification an available option to a wider group of buyers.”

That is a novel goal, but isn’t a smart strategy when we are still so early in the adoption of EVs. In 3-5 years, this strategy would make much more sense. But timing is critical.

So you must ask: Is the Bolt sold under the Chevrolet marque the best strategy to maximize sales of the Bolt, or simply the most convenient GM brand to attach the Bolt to and help energize the brand? Is the Bolt’s job to energize green EV buyers like the Corvette attracts sports car enthusiasts?

Fixes: The brand issues are potentially complex and costly, so I understand why the Bolt is a Chevrolet. But the folks in suits in Detroit could have considered a few different options:

  1. Launching the Bolt under the Buick brand. The Bolt could be sold as a Buick in America as I’m guessing it will be marketed that way in China as the sister Volt model is as a Buick Velite 5. The Buick brand, while certainly not a high-end brand, might be a better fit for the higher cost of the Bolt and more image-conscious buyers located on the two coast of America. Using the Buick nameplate for the Bolt would also have lessened the confusion between it and the Chevrolet Volt.
  2. Relaunch the Saturn brand. I’m probably pushing the envelope on this one, but the Saturn brand and its “A different kind of company” tagline could have been the ideal brand platform to launch an entirely new kind of electric car. The name Saturn itself conjures up a sense of the future and electricity. The brand opportunities and approach to marketing, sales through subscriptions and dealer reps highly knowledge about electric cars. The “Saturn Bolt” could still be sold and serviced through Chevrolet dealers, but underneath a distinct brand.
  3. Create a Bolt “sub-brand.”Similar to the Prius model brand, position the Bolt as a new line of electric cars that is an extension of the Chevrolet brand. They would be sold and serviced as Chevrolets but positioned as a special model line of electric-only cars. While more subtle than being part of an actual separate brand, it would at least give the Bolt a little bit more cache.

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