Bringing back Hummer as a brand was a way better move than trying to build a new brand from the ground up. If they brought this electric truck under a different name I'd be the buzz wouldn't be as big.
General Motors surprised us with the announcement that the company would bring back the Hummer as a model within the GMC brand in 2022. The stealth campaign that debuted during the Super Bowl requires interested buyers to sign up to get future announcements — a creative way to build interest in the vehicle up to launch. But instead of resurrecting the gas-guzzling predecessor that died in 2010, the new version will herald “The Quiet Revolution” as an all-electric model. My first reaction was, “What were they thinking?” But I changed my mind and now believe that GM is finally getting the vehicle and the buildup to launch right.
Hummer was hardly a success story for GM. The brand never made a profit for the company; had ridiculously poor fuel economy, which made it a target for environmentalists; and saw its sales collapse from a 71,524-unit peak in 2006 to a meager 27,485 in 2008 when gasoline soared above $4.00 a gallon. Hummer was neither a showcase for technology nor was it more than a niche model that created strong feelings of affection and hatred with no middle ground. Furthermore, Hummer reinforced the notion that the automaker didn’t care about fuel economy.
So why would GM bring back the icon of excess as an electric-powered vehicle? I think it is strategically brilliant and absolutely necessary, especially if the company is going to convince a skeptical public that a car — or in this case, a hulking truck — can showcase the attributes of electric power, namely no engine noise and rapid acceleration.
To date, the only company that has had success with electric vehicles is Tesla. General Motors’ Volt was innovative because it combined hybrid technology with plug-in recharging. Although it was ahead of the industry, the model did little to change buyers’ minds or generate excitement. GM subsequently offered up the all-electric Bolt, which sold 23,297 units in 2017 and only 16,418 in 2019 before the company announced it was terminating production. Given the Volt’s poor sales, one has to wonder who decided that the next model’s name should rhyme, thus ensuring that, despite the total change in power and performance, the Bolt would be confused with the Volt?
One has to concede that both models failed, not for lack of technology but because they were perceived as dull and expensive. The cars lacked personality and so did the advertising that went with them. Instead of talking about the unique aspects of electric power, the ads featured fold-down rear seats, storage space, electronic instrument panels, and nice upholstery — not exactly the kind of stuff that gets anyone excited about a new ride. The cars left you with the same feeling you got when your mother told you to eat something because it was good for you.
Comparatively speaking, Tesla’s charismatic founder effectively used the media to promote the brand by positioning the car and the company as anything but traditional. Few challenged the silly math Elon Musk used to justify the cost per mile versus a gasoline-powered car. He flogged zero-to-sixty acceleration in just over three seconds, ludicrous driving modes, and autopilot, and even eschewed having dealers, which added to the brand’s outsider image even while inconveniencing buyers and hurting Tesla’s bottom line. General Motors would have been ridiculed if it had delivered cars with the inferior build quality, high warranty claims, and long wait times for service appointments and parts that many Tesla buyers experienced.
Until the Model 3 launched, Tesla owners were a special group. Nearly 80 percent were male with an average age of 57 and an annual income well above $100,000, according to Hedges & Company. Ironically, a similar demographic bought Hummers.
The conclusion that one has to draw from the Tesla versus Volt/Bolt experience is that merely substituting a battery for an engine in an existing model is not going to excite the public any more than a backup camera does. Automakers are making a mistake by offering side-by-side versions of the same model as both gasoline and electric-powered configurations. All that does is highlight the price premium for battery power without providing compelling reasons to want to own and drive an all-electric vehicle. Poor sales are not caused by dealers not wanting to sell electric cars but rather by automakers not teaching potential buyers that the price premium gives them more than just a smaller carbon footprint.
Ironically, the Hummer is the perfect vehicle to showcase battery power. If the box-like design of the classic Hummer can deliver acceleration comparable to the aerodynamic design of the Tesla and manage off-road adventures, GM would be communicating that you sacrifice nothing while gaining unique features only possible in its electric vehicle.