General Motors: On A Mission by J'son M. Lee
General Motors (GM) was founded on September 16, 1908, in Flint, Michigan, as a holding company for Buick, which was controlled by William “Billy” Durant. Durant was a leading manufacturer of horse-drawn vehicles; however, he had a vision of building the car industry. Now some 100 years later, General Motors is a multinational corporation that designs and sells the world’s best vehicles. With brands like Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, and Cadillac, General Motors offers a comprehensive range of vehicles.
At the heart of their business is a customer-driven culture—a culture where the LGBT consumer plays an integral role. Witeck Communications, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based communications firm, estimates the buying power of the LGBT community at over $800 billion annually. With billions of dollars at stake, it behooves companies to make sure their marketing approach includes this valuable demographic.
While many have been slow to target LGBT consumer, General Motors is leveraging itself again as a pioneer in the automobile industry. GM recognizes the value of the LGBT dollar. To this end, they have committed to raising awareness of their products among LGBT consumers. Joe LaMaruglia, GM’s LGBT Communications Manager, is spearheading this effort. I had the pleasure of chatting with Joe about GM’s mission.
Tell us a little about your role as General Motor’s LGBT Communications Manager.
I’m part of the Communications Public Relations team at GM, and I have dual roles. My primary job is Broadcast Communications here in New York, but I’m also a member of the Diversity Communications team. So I handle all of the LGBT outreach from a PR prospective. I’ve been doing that for about four years.
General Motors is known for designing, building, and selling the world’s best vehicles. Why is GM’s presence in the LGBT community so important?
General Motors is one of the most well-known automotive companies on the planet, but it’s never top of mind when members of the LGBT community consider products. That shows when you look at the data; we way under index within this community. They are not considering our four brands, so GM wanted to have a concerted effort to reach out to the community because we value them as consumers. We value them as employees, and we want our consumers to reflect our employee base and vice versa. We all know why the LGBT community is an attractive demographic—very brand loyal, early adopters, etc.—but we weren’t even on their consideration list. My job is to raise the brand awareness of not just the fact that we have amazing products, but we as a company do a lot of great things for the LGBT community.
So how do you go about bridging the gap between General Motors and the LGBT community?
It’s a very targeted grassroots effort. We don’t have millions of dollars to go out and do massive events and massive advertising campaigns. What we are trying to do is influence the influencers. So in various cities around the country we try to identify the people who are influential in the community. It doesn’t necessarily mean the media people. A lot of times it’s not the media—it’s people that are active on social media, or [who have] influential jobs, etc. We invite them to events, or we get them into our products—or both—and we try to change their minds, and raise awareness one person at a time. We do very specific events. We are getting ready to do our New York City event which is around the New York Auto Show. We’ll invite forty very influential LGBT members of the community from New York. We’ll have a cocktail party, but we will also give an overview of what GM is doing to reach out to the community. And then we will have three co-hosts, and those co-hosts are gay automotive writers—writers that write for automobile magazines like Road & Track, Car and Driver, Motor Trend, etc. They will give [the guests] an overview of the auto show—what’s hot, what came out, and then we take them on a private VIP tour of the show hosted by these three experts. We start out with our products, but they go around the entire show. Basically this experience is brought to you by General Motors because, 1) it’s very special, and 2) we are confident that our products can stand up against the best of the world. A lot of people are intimidated by going to an auto show. Wouldn’t it be great to have an expert—a gay expert—take you around the show to show you what’s hot? So that’s an example of a very diverse approach to the community. I’d like to say the LGBT community is the most diverse diversity group. A lot of brands will say they advertised, but we’re trying to get out there on the ground in major cities and be there and interact with them in different ways, but also in ways that align with the vehicle brands. For example, we are a title sponsor for the Gay Polo Tournament. GMC is the brand that we’re choosing to align with that because GMC is a higher-end brand, but it’s also their trucks and SUVs that pull horses – polo is all about horses. We’re trying to be really smart and targeted, knowing that it’s going to take time.
In doing that, do you in turn have to in some way coordinate with, work with, or support anti-gay organizations in your efforts?
I don’t work with directly any anti-gay organizations personally. As a company, our job is to sell as many cars to as many people as we possibly can. Yes, there are people who are upset with some of the outreach we’ve done—the Olympic ads* in particular—but as a public company we have the right and obligation to sell and market to as many people as possible, and that includes the LGBT community. Again, we want our customer base to reflect our employee base, and vice versa.
*General Motors' Chevrolet made a big statement by showing gay couples for the first time in its TV commercials during the Sochi Olympics Opening Ceremonies.
Speaking of the Olympic ads, there was some backlash. If that became stronger, would General Motor’s stance be the same?
I don’t think it’s going to get any stronger than it has been. We’re standing firm. Our Chief Marketing Officer for Chevrolet is one of the guys behind the new advertising, and he has stood firm and explained to dealers that this is the right thing to do. Our CEO is behind it; Upper Management is behind it. We’re not going to waver, but we have to be intelligent about our outreach, and we’re doing a very good job of being smart about it. Our approach is intelligently influencing the influencers.
In reaching out to these LGBT influencers, does that mean you’re making contributions to their organizations?
We do contribute to some organizations in Michigan. I’m working on a PFLAG event right now. That’s contributing to their coffers, if you will, but we also believe in their efforts. We are a business. We want to get something out of it; we want to raise the awareness, and we want to get people into our product. When I do an event, there has to be a car there. We just did an event in San Francisco. We were lead sponsors with Google on Lesbians Who Tech*—795 lesbians in the technology industry in Silicon Valley. Chevrolet was there. We featured the Chevrolet Volt and the Chevrolet Spark because we know that particular demographic were early adopters and very interested in green technology. We don’t just write a check. We are there. We want them to meet our employees.
*The Lesbians Who Tech Summit increases visibility and tech participation in two historically underrepresented communities— the women’s and queer communities. The summit brings together hundreds of queer women in tech (and the people who love them). For more information, visit http://lesbianswhotech.org/summit/.
Do you feel that you’re on the cutting edge as compared to your competitors?
If you look at our outreach we are way ahead of our competitors. People know us as a big mid-western company and automatically make assumptions. No other car company has a person like me. We are playing catch-up because for whatever reason our products weren’t considered within the community.
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about your employees. What is GM PLUS (People Like US)?
GM PLUS is the internal outreach group for GM. We have a lot of employee resource groups—African American, Asian American, Native American—and GM PLUS is the LGBT resource group. It’s a support group, and I believe one of the most active employee resource groups at GM. They do training for management teams around the company. They are the ones behind making sure management stays on track with equal benefits. They are a very influential group within the company and very active. They’ll go in and do education sessions about how to treat LGBT employees and break barriers on assumptions, etc. It’s more than a place for people to talk, meet, and have drinks. They do great work.
Every company that I’ve worked for has a policy of non-discrimination, but there seems to be something unique about General Motor’s policy as it relates to their LGBT employees. What does GM do to go above and beyond the normal legal requirements?
We have non-discrimination as a lot of companies do. Keep in mind that in a state like Michigan (where we are headquartered) you can be fired for being gay. Someone can look at you and say, “I think you’re gay, and you’re out of here,” and there’s no legal recourse. GM does not stand for that. GM has incredible policies that protect all of our employees. One of the areas where we’ve gone above and beyond, and I’m not aware of any other companies doing this, but last year when the federal government legalized same-sex marriage we offered same-sex spousal benefits in the states where marriage was legal. We took one step above that and said, okay, we will recognize same-sex marriages and offer same-sex spousal benefits to anyone who is married in a state where it is legal, no matter where you reside. GM said if you are in a same-sex domestic partnership and you want to go to New York and get married and come back to Michigan we will recognize that as a marriage. There is no tolerance for anything other than complete equality to the legal extent of the law. Part of my job is to tell the world what an amazing place it is to work because that’s important to people when they are making a purchase decision—and it’s a very large purchase decision. The average price of a car is $32,000. So when they are spending upwards of $32,000 on something, you want it to be safe, reliable, and good-looking, but you also want to make sure you’re doing it with a company that aligns with your core values.
Does General Motors have a presence at Pride Events?
Yes and no. GM PLUS handles the Detroit Motor City Pride. I do one Pride event, and that’s in Atlanta. We’ve been doing Atlanta Pride for a couple of years and that’s primarily because I used to live there and have really good relationships with the organizers, but it’s also a fantastic event. We’re always looking for new events, but we have a finite amount of money, and it’s not the best place to put our money in terms of the way we want to influence people. Atlanta Pride has been incredibly receptive. Other Pride events we’ve tried are not in line with our goals, so we take our limited funds and do more creative approaches with Lesbians Who Tech, the Gay Polo Tournament, and our events around the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago auto shows.
I saw GM’s video for the Trevor Project. How did that come about, and why was it so important to do that video?
That video happened in under two weeks. I was sitting on my sofa watching Glee one night and Google did a commercial where they featured their video for the Trevor project. My phone lit up with friends and colleagues saying, “Wow, that was amazing!” And it really was amazing on national television. I said, “All right, we’re doing it!” Under two weeks, I got the group together, got to filming, I produced it, and we made it happen. We’re big supporters of the Trevor Project. Obviously it’s posted externally, but it was really more for us to celebrate Gay Pride month at GM and let all the employees know that this is really important to us. The video turned out to be a lot more emotional than I thought it would be. It was one of the most emotional days ever, but it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. Afterwards the videographers came up—all straight guys from Michigan—giving us hugs and saying that was amazing.
GM was recognized by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation as one of the best places to work for LGBT equality. Why do you think you got this award and what does it mean to have this recognition?
We want to attract the best talent. If someone is graduating from college or grad school, and they’re a member of the LGBT community and they have choices to make, we want them to know that GM is a great place to work and we’ve been recognized for that. We want to make sure it’s a safe and equitable place to work.
Does it feel different walking through the halls knowing you can be yourself and it doesn’t matter?
It feels great! It’s a conservative industry, but GM knows it’s the right thing to do. They hired me and are allowing me to design the outreach. They trust me, and that’s an amazing feeling. I’m a total car geek. I’m a car guy who happens to be gay. I want to sell more cars to this community. We’re an incredibly gay friendly company. I want people to consider Cadillac, Buick, GMC, and Chevrolet when they’re out buying a car. We’d be honored for members of the community to consider us. We’re moving the needle slowly. It’s a slow process, and we’re breaking barriers slowly every year.
Joe, thank you for taking the time out of your day to speak with Proud Times. I think the work you are doing—both internally and externally—is setting the stage for General Motors to be a trailblazer once again, and I am looking forward to the day when other brands follow suit. The LGBT community is a powerful community, and kudos to GM for recognizing that!
For more information about General Motors and their products, please visit their website at www.gm.com.