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How can a startup team transform the way a corporation innovates?

Facing dire declines in market share and market value, General Motors shifted gears in 2006 and embarked on an effort to build an electric car for the masses. The internal startup team that initiated the Chevy Volt project called on Innosight to help develop its go-to-market strategy.

Chevy Volt logo

A strategy for new growth

For more than a century, drivers have depended on gasoline to power their cars. But with rising prices at the pump and other long-term problems around petroleum, General Motors spotted an opportunity to give people a new choice.

The electric car itself is not a new idea. But there have always been problems with the state of batteries—they've been too bulky and expensive and only offered a limited driving range. The Volt team turned the problem on its head by embracing the range limitation, conceiving a car with compact battery system and an "extended range" gasoline engine as a backup. After previewing a concept car at a major auto show in 2007, the team embarked on the hard work of building it.

Developing brand ambassadors

Going to market with a category-creating product presents unique challenges. Breakthrough products can often generate early buzz and excitement but can struggle to find traction in the market because of the "unknown" factor, which can leave interested buyers on the fence.

For Chevy, it was critical that it have a deep understanding of the needs of its target consumers: the "early considerers" who could also become passionate brand "ambassadors." Chevrolet needed to develop equally breakthrough marketplace positioning that would educate consumers and quickly stimulate demand.

What drives the drivers?

To ensure a successful go-to-market strategy, Chevrolet understood that it needed to think beyond traditional research and segmentation of customers. Collaborating with Chevy, Innosight launched a "jobs-to-be-done" project to more fully understand customer desires. This approach identified the fundamental problems customers hope to address when they "hire" products.

The "jobs" analysis examined the full spectrum of motivations that drive a purchase—social, functional, and emotional.

Building on the resulting insights, Chevrolet identified the need to inform the broader public—those car buyers who were more likely to take a wait-and-see approach—about the Volt's unique environmental and performance benefits.

Armed with a thorough profile and understanding of its target customers, Chevrolet and Innosight developed differentiated and persuasive positioning language that would help speak directly to the jobs Volt's target customers would find most compelling.

Transforming the brand

As Chevrolet was planning the initial launch of the Volt, the economy erupted in crisis. Gas prices spiked and the recession hit GM harder than most, resulting in a painful restructuring and bankruptcy.

Sticking by its vision that the Volt needed to be part of a "new GM," the team realized that it needed to deliver all that was promised and more.

The launch of the Volt was met with wide acclaim and many industry accolades—including Motor Trend's 2011 Car of the Year and the 2012 European Car of the Year. (In Europe, the Volt platform is the basis for the Opel Ampera.)

These early endorsements helped build anticipation and defined compelling reasons-to-buy as the company began the wide roll out to dealers across the United States and global markets in the fall of 2011.

Initial data indicates that the Volt has the potential to transform GM and the 100-year-old Chevrolet brand. Some 33 percent of early buyers had never been in a Chevy dealership in their lives, and 86 percent switched to Chevy from a different, non-GM brand. 

Innovation with Impact

Strong sales through 2012 made the Volt the world's #1 bestselling plug-in car.

The Volt also took the top honor in the 2012 Consumer Reports Owner-Satisfaction Survey. For the second year in a row, the Volt beat out all 240 other car models when owners were asked the question: "Would you get this car if you had to do it all over again?" In response, 92% of Volt owners said "Definitely Yes."

Said Tony Posawatz, the director of the Chevy Volt vehicle line: "The outside perspective that the Innosight team provided us really opened up our eyes to the possibilities of how you do an innovative product."

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Related Insights

Books from Innosight:

The Innovator's Prescription: A Disruptive Solution for Health Care

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Innosight in MIT Sloan Management Review:

Finding the Right Job For Your Products

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Innosight's approach is much more collaborative than the big firms'. They help us discover the right answers and opportunities instead of coming in with pre-determined solutions.

Senior Director
Senior Director, Medical Products Company

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