General Motors is a nationalized automaker. But it can’t stay that way forever. Its federal taskmasters have decreed that GM must return to public ownership before the Congressional mid-term elections in 2010. Makes sense. If GM is still on welfare at election time, GM will be an enormous political liability. A symbol of Big Government gone bad. But GM can’t possibly achieve profitability within that time frame. Even if it had the brains, it doesn’t have the time or money to build what needs building, to fix what needs fixing. The new car market sucks and GM’s product planning, reputation and branding are in tatters. So New GM’s doing the only thing they can do: putting lipstick on the product pig and sending it off to market. This “May The Best Car Win” advertising strategy will backfire. Badly.
You can certainly understand the thought process involved. The campaign is, after all, Bob Lutz’s brainchild. For more than half a decade, the former Car Czar has been claiming there’s nothing wrong with GM’s products (especially the vehicles developed during his watch). Lutz has consistently blamed the so-called “perception gap” for GM’s epic fall from grace. Our products used to suck at some indeterminate point in the past, but they don’t anymore, starting . . . now! Wait . . . NOW! In other words, it’s not the product, stupid. It’s the perception of the product.
I have no idea how Lutz seized on the idea that perception and reality aren’t part of a feedback loop. For someone who never saw combat, he has an extremely cynical view of human nature. Less perplexing: why New GM is allowing Lutz to bet the entire company on Maximum Bob’s belief that carpet-bombing consumers with “enlightenment” will somehow save the day. Again, GM has no choice. They don’t have the time to create the incremental improvements they need to build, market and sell the genuinely competitive products which would generate a profit in the North American market.
Speaking of loops, Lutz would say that my assessment of GM’s competitiveness is just my [biased, GM-hating] opinion. But it’s also the opinion of millions of American consumers over the last three or four decades, who’ve been abandoning GM for other car companies. I mean, ipso facto, right?
In truth, GM’s comparison tests will offer little more than invidious distinctions. To wit: GM’s new ads will pit the Chevy Equinox against the Honda CR-V, and the Buick LaCrosse against the Lexus ES350. And so on. According to Automotive News, “Lutz said in the rare cases when both cars match each other feature for feature and warranty for warranty, the difference will be illustrated in sticker price.” So we’re talking about feature comparisons and price comparisons. What was that about the definition of insanity?
Lest we forget, GM’s been driving down this road for some time. Howie Long’s Chevy ads, focusing on relative mileage and manliness, have done exactly nothing to stem the Bow Tie brand’s sales slide. The ads were arrogant, condescending and, at the end of the proverbial English day, ineffective. So ineffective they always ended in a plug for “the deal.” What’s different this time?
Nothing. GM’s “May the Best Car Win” head-to-head ad campaign completely glosses over the fundamental question that a real bankruptcy forces a company to face: “Well, how did I get here?” With a few not-so-notable exceptions, the products that GM is about to present as class-leading are the same products that ushered the company into [its first] bankruptcy. Discount the idea that customers are to blame or the competitors suddenly got worse, and you’re left with an inescapable conclusion: same as it ever was.
The “May the Best Car Win” campaign also reveals Lutz’s ongoing and misplaced belief in symmetrical warfare. Ironically enough, the larger-than-life fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants suit has convinced his bosses that rational comparisons will finally convince consumers of his paycheck provider’s product superiority. But, Bob, that’s not what sells cars. Brands sell cars.
This is no small point. GM’s fall from grace is not about its products, per se. It’s about the company’s ongoing and abject failure to create compelling brands that sell products (and services) that embody the brands’ promise. Never mind the LaCrosse vs. the ES350. Who would buy a Buick instead of a Lexus? Or a Chevrolet instead of a Honda? The people who would are, and the ones that don’t, won’t. No head-to-head model throwdown is going to change the overall dynamic, and/or the minds of people who vote with their wallet.
There’s only one way Lutz and Co. can win this “debate”: frame it in the context of a battle of the brands. But first they have to create four tightly-gathered, clearly expressed branding concepts (e.g., Cadillac as the “standard of the world”), then build products and services that realize that promise. Until and unless New GM grasps that nettle, potential customers will see “May the Best Car Win” as bilious bailout braggadocio, while existing customers will see it as an invitation to jump ship.
Never mind. Time’s up. While we await the inevitable, GM has placed the cart before the horse, and invited potential customers to tell them they’ve gone about it the wrong way. Only this time, when they make their choice, when the best car company wins, everyone loses.