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How GM transformed the Hummer brand from gas guzzler to earth hugger

GM reports 77,000 people are on the waitlist for its new electric Hummer—more than a decade after it stopped making the notorious SUVs.

How GM transformed the Hummer brand from gas guzzler to earth hugger
[Source Photos: GMC and Getty]

Branded is a weekly column devoted to the intersection of marketing, business, design, and culture.

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By the time GM retired the Hummer a dozen years ago, the brand had plenty of detractors. There was even an entire website devoted to people making obscene gestures at the gas-guzzling SUV. It’s hard to believe a brand so openly loathed for its environmental impact could be revived as, of all things, eco-friendly. And yet, that’s what’s happening—and it’s a hit. General Motors recently reported a waiting list of 77,000 for its new all-electric GMC Hummer line, which has just started to roll out of factories, at prices starting around $85,000.

Admittedly, that’s not going to top the EV sales charts—Chinese carmaker BYD reportedly sold 638,157 electric or plug-in hybrids in the first half of this year, and Tesla sold 564,743. But the demand reportedly has GM pushing to speed production. More to the point, it’s a complete change of fortune for a brand that was literally left for dead just over a decade ago. And it’s astonishing that what was once a definitive symbol of conspicuous consumption and eco-indifference has been reinvented as part of post-fossil-fuel revolution. It’s as if Marlboro decided to pivot from cigarettes to opening a gym chain. How did this happen—and how on earth could it be working?

Partly, the brand has been helped by pop/consumer culture’s selective memory and penchant for nostalgia. Recounting the Hummer’s original rise and fall, this Business Insider video claims that when it debuted in the early 2000s, its “tough look and military background made it instantly cool.” Well, not exactly: In truth it was instantly divisive, and while it certainly had fans, it was also widely demonized. That’s one of the reasons it eventually failed.

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But perversely, it’s possible that the brand’s borderline villainous notoriety is part of what’s fueling (er, charging) its improbable comeback.  

Adapted from the military Humvee—in part, famously, at the urging of Arnold Schwarzenegger—the earliest civilian version cost $100,000, and got less than 10 miles a gallon. GM absorbed the brand and refined its design in the early 2000s, when the Hummer really was a pop phenomenon for a time. In those early days, Hummer marketing was aggressively dismissive of its critics and scolds, projecting a borderline F-you vibe—in fact, some critics called them FUVs. Adding the $50,000 H2 and $30,000 H3 to the mix, GM sold about 70,000 of the vehicles at its 2006 peak.

Then GM got walloped by the 2007-2008 financial crisis, surviving only through a government bailout. Hummer, already flagging, was a casualty of its restructuring: Sales and manufacturing ended in 2010, and the brand was effectively dead. By then, the critics’ view of the Hummer—an obnoxious, anti-social gas hog—had come to overshadow any blingy cachet.

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And for quite some time, that negative view seemed like the last word. A 2017 video explaining why the H2 is “the most embarrassing vehicle you can drive”—dismissing it as a “hilarious thing,” with a litany of practical design flaws and pointless styling, getting less than 12 miles per gallon—has 8.7 million views. “Nobody takes you seriously when you’re in this car,” the video maker summarizes.

But here’s the thing. Hummer fandom was real. And as an academic study of Hummer owners conducted when the brand was at its most controversial, it looked very different to the vehicle’s loyalists. To them, attacks on the SUV and its drivers amounted to a “brand-mediated moral conflict” in which Hummer enthusiasts were “moral protagonists” who saw their choice of vehicle as consistent with bedrock American values around choice, freedom, and (most of all) individualism. That’s the flip side of the FUV spirit: the classic American rebel pose.  

Within a few years of their crisis-era dip, SUVs and pickups began making a comeback—with even luxury brands dipping into the SUV category. The EV category was surging, too; but clearly for EVs to succeed as not just a niche but a full-on sea change, they have to appeal to consumers beyond the eco-conscious niche that drove the Prius (or the Pious, as some old-school Hummer enthusiasts used to call it), the Volt, and even Teslas.

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And let’s face it, you can’t get further from eco-conscious branding than the Hummer. It’s an EV for “people who never wanted an EV,” a GM executive explained to The Wall Street Journal after the Hummer electro-revival was announced in 2020. Both the SUV and pickup-style EV models intentionally retained the Hummer silhouette—”as unapologetic as ever,” Fast Company‘s Mark Wilson wrote when the new designs were first unveiled, “almost urging you to punch it in its oversize front grille.”

An early Hummer EV promotional video was as over-the-top as anything from the brand’s heyday. The Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross/Karen O. version of Immigrant Song blares as we watch the “beast” of a vehicle (the pickup version weighs over 9,000 pounds) ripping around deserts (demonstrating “off-road dominance”) and highways and showing off its completely unnecessary power (zero-to-sixty in three seconds).

If this is all pandering to the unvarnished Hummer rebel, that’s only partly true. But the twist is that in an all-electric version, the rebel gets to be virtuous, too. It’s like a meat-lover’s pizza with extra cheese that is somehow vegan and makes you lose weight! This puts the revived version of the brand right in line with the zeitgeist. After all, what does the typical American consumer want to sacrifice? Nothing.

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The Hummer has always been about excess. So it makes sense that in this iteration, it promises a perhaps-unrealistic level of optimism. The original Hummer was for an unapologetic consumer looking to do something like the opposite of virtue-signaling. The electric Hummer’s grandiose, pushy presence makes it a rare example of an EV with some swagger. It’s for the driver who still wants to annoy the world—but save it, too.

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About the author

Rob Walker writes Branded, a weekly column about marketing and branding. He also writes about design, business, and other subjects

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