How Chevrolet cultivated lifelong consumers through the Transformers franchise


In 2007, Michael Bay directed a film that turned out to be more impactful than the explosions in its trailer. Both for a worldwide fan base and a car company struggling to sell their signature muscle car.

It was a film boasting a huge cult following, massive budget, and a ton of demolitions experts. Shia Lebouf and Megan Fox headlined the cast, setting this film up to be a classic Michael Bay one-shot watch. Set it and forget it.

However, Transformers reignited the passion of the past for millions of people across the planet. What I always notice when rewatching the films is that it's not just Autobots vs Decepticons.

It’s GM vs Ford. The intergalactic rivalry takes roots in our world.

Look closely, From Hummers to Pontiacs, to the main protagonist driving a bright yellow Chevy Camaro. Besides the Peterbilt Optimus Prime, Bumblebee gets the most screen time in the iconic american muscle car.

The Decepticons? Mustangs and other Ford vehicles. The entire movie is a giant GM ad. The Transformers franchise offered the rare opportunity to position products as the protagonists and antagonists of major motion pictures.

After sales stagnated in the late 90s and early 2000s, this partnership is a big reason why the Camaro is still alive today.

The Fall and Rise of the Camaro

From 1995 to 2003, sales of the Camaro had been in steady decline in the US. After subpar performance, there were only just over 41,000 Camaros on the market in 2002. GM subsequently stopped production of the vehicle altogether in 2003, allowing their market share to be devoured by their competition.

However, GM began redesigning the Camaro in 2006. Perfect timing to be considered for the major casting call the Transformers franchise was about to put out. It also didn’t hurt that Michael Bay had a close relationship with GM.

Bay convinced the car company to let him cast the new generation of the Camaro as Bumblebee, Sam Heneike’s (Shia Labeouf) autobot ally. But this concept car wasn't going to be available to the general public until two years after the film came out.

Instead, the film incorporated an original 1977 Camaro to pay homage to the roots of the American muscle car. Battered and bruised in rust and scratches, it looked nothing like the modern designs GM was primed to release.

But the film went on to earn nearly $710 million worldwide and launch a new franchise for both Paramount and Hasbro. In turn, GM saw interest in the Camaro skyrocket. 

The Numbers in a Nutshell

Since the first Transformers film was released in 2007, the franchise has grossed $1,325,037,329 domestically and $3,778,471,557 worldwide. This popularity has also positively translated to interest in the Chevy Camaro.

In 2009, 2 years after the release of Transformers, the Generation 5 Camaro dropped and sold 60,000 models. GM would go on to make some more savvy moves, announcing the Transformers special edition Camaro package in 2009, to be released in 2010.

That campaign saw another 80,000 Camaro’s sold by the end of the calendar year. Interest in the car was seen not only in dealerships and theaters and in the toy aisle, where the Camaro was available as more than 150 different types of toys.

Ed Welbum, VP of GM Global design talks about this impact,

“Being a part of the ‘Transformers’ franchise is an incredible way to showcase the design work of which GM is capable...The global series gets our cutting-edge designs in front of more potential customers than we could through traditional methods.”

But Transformers did more than increase sales of the Camaro in the short term. It provided the opportunity for GM to cultivate lifelong consumers. Selling Camaros out of the gate is great, but the real gold lies in conditioning a large group of people to associate Camaros and other GM vehicles with their childhood heroes. 

Building lifelong consumers of Camaros 

Think about it like this: You are 12-years old and go to see the debut of Transformers in 2007. You love the film and become a fan of the franchise. Six films and several billion dollars later, it’s 2017 and you are thinking about cars you want to buy. You’ve transitioned from playing with a Bumblebee toy in the driveway to wanting to drive a Bumblebee camaro to pick up your date at the movies.

Subconsciously, films like Transformers condition generations of children to want to be like their heroes portrayed on screen. And it’s not really a secret.

“In all the ‘Transformers’ films, Chevrolet vehicles get to play the heroes,” said Tim Mahoney, chief marketing officer, global Chevrolet. “These movies have helped us get our vehicles in front of a younger audience around the world.”

In a more targeted effort, Chevrolet released a SuperBowl XLVIII ad called “Whisper” three months before the release of Transformers: Age of Extinction. It depicts a young boy watching the trailer for the new film on an iPad. A brand new Chevy Camaro pulls up to the driveway and the boy is visibly excited. 

He walks up to the front of the Camaro and whispers, “Bumblebee, is that you?”

It’s quite a cute and wholesome moment on screen. But this is the exact scenario depicted above and a powerful example of building that lifelong trust with a brand. For a generation of fans, Bumblebee will always be a Chevy Camaro in their mind.

That will translate in sales of the Camaro, especially yellow ones, for a long time. 

Final Thoughts  

Bumblebee is one of the most effective displays of influencer marketing we’ve ever seen on screen. In a normal world, actors are cast to play protagonists and antagonists in films. But this project allowed GM and Chevrolet to position their product as the star of the show.

Move over Marlboro man. The amount of exposure and brand equity gained with a combination like this trumps any type of influencer marketing impact seen in the past with alcohol or tobacco. Social and mass media has empowered Transformers and Chevy to distribute their narrative around the world.

The numbers don’t lie, still, the reach of a decade-long campaign like this is hard to quantify and will likely reap rewards for decades to come.

I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t think about owning a Camaro after watching Transformers. Maybe that’s why I have a distaste for vile Decepticon Ford Mustangs. 

I guess my life makes a little more sense now. I hope yours does too.