When Deborah Wahl G92 WG92 took on the role of global chief marketing officer at General Motors a little over a year and a half ago, she became the first woman ever to helm the position at the storied automaker. Having spent most of her time in the position so far amid the pandemic, she has faced not only immense challenges but also great opportunity; among those opportunities, she is playing a central role in GM’s campaign to sway buyers from gas vehicles to environmentally friendly motors. Wharton Magazine caught up with Wahl to discuss the company’s efforts in this area and the lessons she has learned in the past year.
Wharton Magazine: GM’s goal to become carbon neutral by 2040 seems to be a bellwether for the auto industry as a whole. Why was it important for GM to make that announcement earlier this year?
Deborah Wahl: In 2017, we announced our vision of a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion, and we believe that vision should be accompanied by clear and ambitious targets. Shifting to carbon neutral is a great example. Within our carbon neutral goals, we have worked with the Environmental Defense Fund to develop a shared vision of an all-electric future and an aspiration to eliminate tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035. Our focus will be offering zero-emissions vehicles across a range of price points and working with all stakeholders, including EDF, to build out the necessary charging infrastructure and promote consumer acceptance while maintaining high-quality jobs, which will all be needed to meet these ambitious goals.
To address emissions from our own operations, we will source 100 percent renewable energy to power our U.S. sites by 2030 and global sites by 2035, which represents a five-year acceleration of our company’s previously announced global goal.
WM: As part of GM’s all-electric shift, the company plans to release 30 new electric vehicles by the end of 2025. Yet, electric vehicles make up a small portion of total car sales today—about 3 percent globally last year. What are GM’s main messages for getting consumers on board?
DW: “Everybody In” is our rallying cry. The campaign sets an optimistic and inclusive tone for our EV future.
We have the talent, technology, and ambition to advance a safer world for all, help reduce emissions and accelerate toward our all-electric future. “Everybody In” demonstrates our intent to lead, while inviting others to play an active role in moving society forward — whether that’s helping to expand infrastructure, advocating for progress in their communities, or simply taking an EV for a test drive to learn about the benefits of EV ownership. We aren’t going to reach our goals if our marketing approach is about convincing people to make the switch; success is about creating something so compelling that no one will want to be left behind.
We feel there are three stages to shifting the adoption rate of EVs. The first is normalize: In 2020, we revealed the Ultium battery platform, which will be the heartbeat of our all-electric future. Thanks to Ultium’s pouch-cell design, we can accommodate a wide variety of vehicle styles and platforms, allowing us to develop batteries that charge fast and go far, at scale.
Next is personalize: Make ownership simple, by building out a charging infrastructure through strategic partnerships. With partners like EVgo, we are tripling the size of the nation’s largest public fast-charging network by adding more than 2,700 new fast chargers by the end of 2025 — pairing a powerful charging network with GM’s Ultium-powered EVs, which are designed for fast charging and capable of delivering a vehicle with an estimated range of up to 450 miles on a full charge.
Last is mesmerize: Driving an EV is fun and surprising! Features like instant torque, no shift shock, and connected services make for an exciting experience every time you’re behind the wheel.
WM: The “Everybody In” campaign made a splash during the Super Bowl with Will Ferrell challenging Americans to out-EV Norway, where over half of cars sold are electric. What inspired this commercial specifically?
DW: “No Way, Norway” is an extension of GM’s “Everybody In” campaign, which overall is an effort to excite a new generation of vehicle buyers and to generate EV enthusiasm while showcasing our Ultium battery platform. The spot features upcoming Ultium-powered electric vehicles, including the Cadillac Lyriq luxury SUV and the GMC Hummer EV supertruck.
We may be taking light-hearted jabs at Norway, but we admire the country’s quest for a zero-emissions world. I have to compliment Norway for how they embraced the campaign. There were many responses from Norway — including their prime minister “receiving” the pizza order from Will Ferrell and critiquing the toppings — and our competitors like Audi even joined in. That’s exactly what we hoped to accomplish. We used the platform and humor to spark a global conversation about the virtues of EVs and create something bigger than ourselves. Because our vision is not just great for GM — it’s the right thing to do for the world.
WM: As part of the “Everybody In” campaign, GM not only rolled out new advertising but also changed its logo. What drove you to redesign the logo for only the fifth time in the company’s 112-year history?
DW: When we announced our ambition for an all-electric future in 2017, our priorities shifted to creating a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion. We needed our visual identity to match our vision. With our new logo, we were ready to communicate the significant transformation the company has undergone internally to the outside world. As we strive to transform mobility, our logo reflects and represents an energized, inclusive, and modern organization.
WM: The past year has been challenging for automakers due to conditions brought on by the pandemic, such as lockdowns and a semiconductor shortage. What have been some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned as a marketer amid these circumstances?
DW: The events of the past year have strengthened everyone’s resolve to push through what has held us back. It’s a lesson we learned when called upon to convert our factories to make ventilators in response to the COVID crisis, a call we answered in 30 days. If we could do that, then we can do anything, and that success has been baked into our DNA. Now we approach every challenge ready, willing, and able to act in “ventilator speed.”
Since working from home, we must make the time to have human interactions, the interactions that we’ve lost without being face to face in the office, such as making a point to call someone just to check in on them — not a work-related call to see how a project is progressing but to see how they, as an individual, are doing. And we as a company have been able to step back and appreciate not only our shared vision but also our unique differences. We wouldn’t be here without the workers who have gone back to our facilities to build vehicles today and develop EVs for tomorrow. Just as working from home has had challenges, working in person has its own need for innovation, and I have such tremendous respect for our vast team of people. We aspire to be the most inclusive company in the world, and part of getting to that point is capturing these lessons from the last year and not forgetting them.
On a personal note, when I was in the eighth grade, I received advice that has guided me ever since: “The whole point of life is to find your joie de vivre, your joy in life, and make sure that you pursue that to have the most fulfilling life.”