Tim Mahoney of General Motors stands next to a Chevy Camaro

Auto Luminaries: Tim Mahoney

Despite what auto manufacturers would certainly like, cars don’t actually sell themselves. It takes hard work and determination for a particular model to not only be designed, tested, constructed, and mass-produced, but also reach drivers who are interested in it. That’s where marketing comes in – it’s not just about making interesting commercials, but connecting people with the kinds of vehicles they want. For the last few decades, one of the leading names in auto marketing has been Tim Mahoney who has led the charge on some of the most successful campaigns around.

With a background in international studies and marketing management, Mr. Mahoney started his career in the industry at Subaru where he rose to prominence with the “Sports Utility Wagon.” From there he worked at Porsche Cars North America and helped introduce the world to the first SUV born from sports-car sensibilities with the Porsche Cayenne. From Porsche, he returned to Subaru and launched the incredibly successful “Love” campaign – finding the emotional connection so many of us have with our cars and driving. For the last few years, he has been at Chevrolet and encouraged us all to “Find New Roads” while making a commitment to technology as a cornerstone of the auto industry.

Background in Marketing

I feel that one of the best ways to get to know someone is to look at their education – not as a status symbol, but as an indicator of where their passions lay. Tim Mahoney received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Foreign Languages & International Studies from Newberry College in 1978. That’s an interesting place to start for someone in a business like the auto industry and reveals a lot about what made Mr. Mahoney so successful. An interest and passion for language and other countries shows a level of creative thinking you can see again and again throughout his career.

Mr. Mahoney went on to receive a Master of Business Administration in Marketing Management from Drexel University in 1983, which makes complete sense when you look at the trajectory of his career. That combination of linguistic creativity and business acumen would be perfectly expressed in the various marketing campaigns he has been a part of and led over the years.

A Big Splash at Subaru

In 1984, Tim Mahoney started his career in the auto industry at Subaru of America Inc. and the majority of his career was spent there. By 1995 he had become the Director of Marketing for Subaru of America, and during his tenure there he was instrumental in marketing the “Sports Utility Wagon” that Subaru introduced to America in that time. He was a major force in the creation and popularization of the slogan, “From the wheels that slip, to the wheels that grip,” which became synonymous with Subaru here in the US.

This was a great slogan for two reasons: first, it rhymes, and that always works for people – seriously, never underestimate how effective rhyming is for making an impact. Second, it is a simple and concise phrase that explains the basic idea behind an all-wheel-drive system with automatic power transfer. They didn’t need a three-minute video to talk about slippage and such, just a 10-word phrase (that rhymes!) to make sense for viewers. This is where that understanding of language and marketing come together, and why Mr. Mahoney’s legacy from his time at Subaru continues to endure.

Pushing Porsche in a New Direction

In 1999 Tim Mahoney took a position as General Manager of Marketing at Porsche Cars North America and his influence there began to show almost immediately. He was a major part of the development and marketing of the Porsche Cayenne, which was the first non-sports car ever produced by the company. The Cayenne is an SUV and was offered as the “first SUV fathered by a sports car,” which guided all the marketing around it.

Mr. Mahoney was promoted to Vice President of Marketing at Porsche Cars North America in 2004 and continued to lead the overall marketing vision for that company. He helped create a five-year vision for marketing by Porsche in the US and pushed to make their name more than a synonym for expensive sports cars. You can see how his work shapes the image of companies that he has been with and how he views marketing as integral to every aspect of what a car manufacturer does.

Return to Subaru

In 2006, Mr. Mahoney returned to Subaru, triumphant from his campaigns at Porsche, as the Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer. Not one to rest on his laurels, Tim Mahoney worked to rebrand the image of Subaru in the US and launched the “Love” campaign. It was a brilliant move at a time when the auto industry was coming under a lot of fire for bailouts and being disconnected from the average driver. The Love campaign revealed a different narrative: a car company that cared about its drivers, about the world, and about connecting with people.

The campaign was a massive success and resulted in Subaru growing and taking more of the market during one of the worst recessions in history. He did not go unnoticed, however, as he was named one of the top 10 marketers in the US by Brandweek while at Subaru and overseeing the Love campaign. Flashy commercials with cars running laps and kicking up dirt are great – but when people are hurting, you want to see a company showing compassion. With the Love campaign, Mr. Mahoney realized that need and did exactly that.

Behind the Wheel at Volkswagen

His second time at Subaru was shorter than the first, however, as Mr. Mahoney joined the Volkswagen Group of America in 2011 as the Chief Product and Marketing Officer, reporting directly to the President and CEO of the company. At Volkswagen, Tim Mahoney was essentially the head of the company when it came to determining the brand and vision of marketing in the US. His success in that role was simple: embrace their heritage of powerful and precise German engineering.

He successfully connected Volkswagen once again with the idea that German engineering is impressive and marketed that concept beautifully to the public. He also oversaw the launch of the 3rd generation Volkswagen Beetle here in the US, which was very well received. And yet another challenge lay ahead for Mr. Mahoney – a greater task: reinvigorating the American auto!

Finding New Roads at Chevrolet

In 2013, Tim Mahoney became the Chief Marketing Officer Global Chevrolet and Global GM Marketing Operations Leader. While at Chevrolet, he has been a driving force behind the “Find New Roads” tagline and advertising campaign, designed to encourage new thinking within the industry and among drivers. He has been at not only the Detroit Auto Shows but also the Consumer Electronics Shows over the last few years, showing he understands the importance of new technology for growing the industry.

Once again, you can see how Mr. Mahoney has pushed for the outward face of the company to match an internal philosophy – generating a brand that has depth and meaning. It’s one thing to sling a catchy tagline at shoppers and hope for the best; it’s another thing completely, however, to craft a slogan that has meaning inside and out. With “Find New Roads,” just like the “Love” campaign at Subaru, you can see Tim Mahoney looking inside Chevrolet to inspire their employees with a drive for bigger and better things, while also encouraging all of us to take the road unexplored and innovate in our very lives.

GM's Tm Mahoney at an auto show

All Things Must End

Last December, Chevrolet and General Motors announced that Tim Mahoney will be retiring at the beginning of March. He is 62 years old now and has spent more than half his life working in the auto industry. His legacy is not hard to see; however, as he has touched so many memorable advertising campaigns and led marketing in new and remarkable ways for the industry. It will be sad to see him go, but I cannot help but wonder who will pick up his mantle and find new ways to innovate in automotive marketing. Perhaps there are even more new roads to find.