By on August 20, 2011


When, a few days ago, I wrote my rant about GM wanting to be like Apple, I did a bad job. My point was not that GM can’t be like Apple because it doesn’t have an aluminum unibody, my point was not GM’s number of platforms, my point was not that GM wants to marginalize Opel by being Apple, my point was not that Ford is closer to being Apple, my point was not that Sony and its “Sony timer” will never be like Apple, my point was not that Apple is like BMW.

Apparently, I failed to get my point across.

My point was that any CEO or marketing manager who wants his company to be like another company should abdicate and apply for a job at that other company. Or that he should be taken out and shot, in an act of mercy killing.

My point was that GM should be like GM.

If you want to be the market leader, then you need to lead the market. If you ape other companies, you look like a monkey. Sure, there is nothing wrong with benchmarking and “adapting” a good idea or two. Do it, and keep it to yourself. But for heaven’s sake, don’t issue a press release!

In real life and marketing, there is one golden rule:

Be yourself.

And then, mercilessly refine and improve what you have got.

The core of branding is to be unique. Trying to be someone else is the antithesis of being unique, and a road to failure. Even the best Elvis impersonator will always be an impersonator, at best, he will be an impostor.

I was reminded of that by an email I received today by a good friend of mine (you know who you are), who knows a hell of a lot, and who throws a hell of a lot into the wind, including the rules of proper capitalization (of words.) He writes:

“sometimes i’m glad the auto chiefs say stupid things.  then the business papers sometimes write a good follow-up article.  thought you might find this to be interesting.” 

Attached was a link to a Postrel article in Bloomberg. A while ago, I would have thought a postrel is some kind of a dessert. Virginia Postrel is the author of “The Substance of Style”, and of “The Future and its Enemies”, two of the best business books you can buy. She is also the author of “To Be the Next Apple, Lose the Bafflegab,” the article we are talking about here.

Like me a few days ago, she notes that “everybody, it seems, wants to be like Apple.” Even “Google is buying Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc., many observers say, so it can integrate hardware and software to be like Apple.” And then she goes on a rant against pointless drivel and fluff, that makes me jump up from my chair, whack the table, and shout “Yessss, Virginia!”

“Strategy is not what many people think it is. It is not a fill-in-the-blanks mission statement blathering about how XYZ Corp. will ethically serve its stakeholders by implementing best-in-class integrated sustainable practices to grow as a global leader while maximizing shareholder value. Such bafflegab is “Dilbert“-fodder that generates cynicism and contempt. It is, at best, a big waste of time.”

Victoria explains the difference between a strategy, a mission statement, a goal, and the vision thing. These differences are often forgotten, confused, perverted, gang-raped.

A former old school Volkswagen manager of the Beetle era once told me (in private): “I only have visions when I’m drunk.”

He was a dinosaur from the olden days when VW was a bafflegab-free zone. He became part of the “biological solution” and made room for an army of PowerPointers with a Ph.D. in Dilbertology.

In closing, Virginia gives unpaid advice to GM and the legions of others who want to be like Apple:

“So if you really want to be like Apple, drop the fluff- filled vision statements and magical wishes. Pretend your company’s existence is at stake, coldly evaluate the environment, and make choices. Stop thinking of strategy as meaningless verbiage or financial goals and treat it as a serious design challenge.”

To which I may add:

And forget about being like Apple.

Simply be your best. Trust me, it’s hard enough.

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35 Comments on “Don’t Eat The Apple, GM. Get The Girl...”

  • avatar

    As I’ve posted in other threads, Apple is where GM was circa 1950. GM wrote the book on building anticipation for a new product, then rolling out said product in grand fashion. And for 1930’s-1960’s tastes and expectations (which it’s important to note are NOT today’s tastes and expectations) the vehicles worked. The GM business model, as once stated in TTAC, was to build a product with which you would be very happy…until the next one comes out. At that point, you HAD to have the new one and your current model became a good used car for someone else.

    Of course all the Detroit automakers acted this way…but GM built the template, starting with Harley Earl’s design studio.

    Planned obselecence. Apple has this down pat. And the stuff just works. Only thing is, as Peter DeLorenzo points out…we aren’t the society we were in 1950. Automobiles just don’t capture the heart’s attention the way the latest tech products do…

    That said, GM would do well to take to heart Virginia’s advice as noted above. Just don’t expect legions of people to flock to papered-over showroom windows waiting for the big rollout. Instead build stuff that exceeds expectations and makes their customers happy.

    • 0 avatar

      30s-60s is about right. Coz soon after that German and Jap engineering started wreaking havoc on Detroit.

    • 0 avatar

      “…in 1950. Automobiles just don’t capture the heart’s attention the way the latest tech products do…”

      That’s because in 1950, you couldn’t have your own fission-rocket-plane yet, color TV and stereo were a decade off, so autos with such futuristic design cues (plus the interstates) were the latest tech products.

      • 0 avatar

        And today America become the “Camry Nation” living out of bubbles (means robbing) and hand-outs from other countries. In 50s and 60s America was a cool country, the large exporter. Made in USA meant something and car and car culture was the envy of the rest of the world.

  • avatar

    my point was not that GM wants to marginalize Opel by being Apple

    That was my point. The Applespeak is, in part, GM management’s indirect way to advance an internal agenda.

    My point was that GM should be like GM.

    The last time that GM acted like GM, it had to file bankruptcy.

    The Apple marketing model isn’t well suited to a mainstream car maker, so I would agree that GM shouldn’t follow it. But GM has spent decades being an insular, arrogant company that refused to look outside of itself for examples of how it could change and improve. Having GM be itself is probably the last thing that anybody needs.

    In that sense, the New GM’s Apple chatter is refreshing. At least the New GM is acknowledging that the company has a lot to learn from somebody else. The Old GM would have grumbled about how it was King of the World while the palace walls were crumbling in and the invaders were breaking down the gates, loudly blaming everything and everyone but itself for its failings.

  • avatar

    So the moral of the story is “always be yourself, no matter what other people say”? Such advice may be great for teenage girls with confidence problems but this is a large multinational car company we are talking about.

    Honest question, if “GM should be like GM”, what exactly is “GM” today? The ‘old GM’ is now Motors Liquidation Company, the ‘new GM’ is a different company now, they still with federal ownership, their Daewoo division is increasingly the source of their car platforms, and they will also likely become the largest car company by sales volume again this year mainly due to China.

    So again, what is “GM” today? Its obviously very different from the GM in the past; in more ways then one. They are obviously searching for a new corporate identity. So what should they be like exactly? And, no, ‘be your best’ is not advice.

    • 0 avatar

      I have better advice, but that costs serious money.

      “Be yourself and be your best” is the best free advice I can give, sorry.

      “Be GM” doesn’t mean “Be the old GM”. A lot of companies morphed from old to new. I was there when “IBM” turned into the “New IBM” and managers felt naked without their dark blue suit and white button-down Brooks Brother’s shirt. Many other companies had to reinvent themselves.

      We already have a “New GM”. Now, be a really new GM. Brand new. Not copied from somewhere else.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, IBM reinvented themselves. So did Apple. Nokia, several times. And VW, in the 1970s. (No other car company comes to mind as having undergone as radical a transformation, acquisitions excluded — although some, like BMW, started off in different businesses and transitioned INTO the car business.)

      • 0 avatar

        I was there when Volkswagen reinvented themselves. I still have the (internal) strategy book. I helped writing it. Its was called “Die Grosse Entkäferung” – “The Great Debugging.”

        Virginia rightly says: “Pretend your company’s existence is at stake, coldly evaluate the environment, and make choices.”

        Volkswagen did not have to pretend. Their existence was at stake. They made choices. A lot of choices were made for them. Passat, Scirocco, Golf, Polo. These were cars made out of desperation. If they would have had more time and focus groups, these cars would have never happened. They just happened to be the right cars at the right time. They turned the company, they changed the automotive landscape.

        You know how they go into China? In November 1978, a guy in a Mao suit, followed by several guys in Mao suits, walked up to the gate at Wache Sandkamp and said “I am Chou Tzu Tsian the Minister of Machine Building of China. I want to see the boss.” The guy at the gate didn’t dare to call Carl Hahn, who was the boss. He called W.P. Schmidt, head of sales. He invited them up. They turned out to be real.

        Hahn had the foresight to say “Yes, let’s do it.” If that guy in the blue Mao suit would not have walked up to the gate, if the people at Mercedes where he was before would not have treated him so condescendingly, history would have taken a much different turn.

        At that time I was 28. At that time, I heard the first time: “Bertel, market saturation is 500 cars per thousand. Some day, when we are all dead, a billion people in China will drive hundreds of million of cars.” Now THAT was strategy.

        I am glad that I am still alive to witness the beginnings of that strategy bear fruits.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    GM hasn’t been itself since some point in the 1960s.

  • avatar

    I just kept trying to fast-forward to the porn.

  • avatar

    Great piece, Bertel, and I would offer this followup: most people don’t understand Apple at its core (no pun intended). The reason for Apple’s success is not its marketing (yes, it’s catchy), not its ability to capture social trends (though they’re great at it) and is not in its bling-bling (their products are extremely minimalist, from features to packaging). What Apple excels at is making technology so easy that it integrates into your life as a natural extension.

    If your product isn’t any good, marketing can only help float you for so long before the rot destroys the company completely and consumers abandon you.

    Short form: Apple excels at its product, something many advanced companies forget. As companies grow older, they begin to rely more on marketing, gimmickry, advertising and finance to keep up sales. Apple continually evolves, continually improves and continually is willing to take risks and throw out the old for the sake of the new.

    If you want to understand it best, go read Steve Jobs’ graduation speech at Stanford a few years back. The who thing is summarized there in a very humble, honest, organic speech.

    If GM truly wants to be Apple-esque, they need to realize that the only thing that matters. The ONLY thing that matters is the product. Each product must have a zen-like, laser-like focus on those core things that people need (but, ironically, don’t even know they need). They need product planners who do not listen to focus groups, do not cram every unnecessary feature into the product and who understand their current and potential consumers better than the consumer knows themselves.

    Product. That’s what Apple does better than anyone else. Everything else follows from excellent product.

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      “What Apple excels at is making technology so easy that it integrates into your life as a natural extension.”

      No, that’s just marketing.

      • 0 avatar

        About marketing, yes and no.

        We live in a house with both Windows XP and Mac computers. The Mac just stays running without fuss or the need for me to know much about the OS. I’ve been saying for two years that I need to learn more about the Mac OS, but I’ve never found that the need to.

        The Windows PC requires a lot more nuts and bolts knowledge. I suspect that more Windows boxes are replaced because the software is screwed up by a virus, malware, or an update problem than because of either obsolescence or hardware failure.

        Does Apple push this difference hard in their marketing? Of course.

      • 0 avatar

        M1 –

        Perhaps this is a matter of opinion, but Apple has an uncanny ability to take kludgy existing technology and just make it work as most people want it to work. It’s about saying “no” more than saying “yes”. This is why the first iPod only supported Macs. It’s why Apple ignored the pundits who said the iPod needed an FM/AM tuner, OGG Vorbis compatibility and numerous other features that ultimately just didn’t matter. They built the best damned music player and people bought them by the millions.

        Now, of course marketing played a part of this, no doubt. However, the fact that people actively SEEK OUT iPods and iPads says something. People will take a Zune music player or HP TouchPad if its given to them, but they don’t actively go out looking to buy one. Why? Apple set the standard by which these products are measured. If you’re not as good as Apple and can’t provide a significant cost savings as your competitive benefit, then don’t bother.

    • 0 avatar

      What Apple does better then anyone else is let Steve Jobs whip the design & development teams until Steve wants the product. According to Steve, the most important thing to do is to know what features to leave OUT. Then there is the ‘There is one way do to a given task’ thing that they iterate on until the way chosen is the RIGHT way that works like you think it should.
      I personally don’t own any Apple gear but I see the value in developing products this way.

      • 0 avatar

        240SX_KAT –

        Great comment, and spot on. I work with a lot of different software products throughout the day and am dismayed at how poorly the interfaces are designed. While programmers may think they’re doing you a service by giving you ten different ways to accomplish the same task, what they don’t realize is that this ‘functionality’ actually oversaturates the brain with useless information that leads to confusion.

        Sure, it may sound a bit fascist to argue that there is ONE way things should be done, but for the sake of clarity, simplicity and cohesion I think it is necessary.

        This comes back to KNOWING YOUR AUDIENCE. If you are selling to techno-weenies who feel the need to get in, tweak, play and get to the nuts and bolts of things – then great. But Apple knows its core audience are content creators, basic end-users and knowledge workers. These people need tools that simplify their lives and solve problems, not create additional ones.

        Apple is careful about positioning the iPad as a product that is designed for content CONSUMPTION, but is capable of limited creation. The distinction is very clear: need to do lots of creation – get a Mac. Just need to read a book/browse the web – get an iPad.

        This is why Volkswagen de-contented the Jetta. They learned that their core audience just didn’t care about an independent rear suspension or soft-touch materials. Sure, the 1% core Jetta enthusiasts were bummed and made a HUUUUGE stink about it – but those concerns just aren’t borne out in the sales data. VW knew what Jetta buyers were really buying – and it wasn’t those things that make the car more expensive to manufacture, sell and support. Good for them for finally waking up.

      • 0 avatar

        Knowing your audience is a fundamental tenet of almost any endeavor. I think most ‘enthusiasts’ (including those who design and develop technologies) forget that not everyone shares their particular enthusiasm (whatever it might be). Most people relate to technologies and other products (as well as general fields of interest) at what enthusiasts would consider a merely superficial level (which most enthusiasts tend to despise, unfairly I would suggest–and car enthusiasts are a particularly good illustration of this). But unless you are marketing specifically to enthusiasts (whether they be computer geeks, audio geeks, automobile geeks, philosophy geeks, etc.) you would be better designing your product for your ‘non-enthusiast’ target audience, which as you say, Apple seems to do quite well.

        Of course, doing this in a way that doesn’t underestimate one’s audience (where one develops and then rests upon a sort of static caricature of people) is also a crucial point that many people often forget.

  • avatar

    “Apparently, I failed to get my point across.”

    Who actually needs a “point” as evidenced by a multitude of posts from a Coot, Disgruntled, Old.

    Words can be interpreted in so many ways that written communication is fraught with “danger.”

    Misinterpretation of the sender’s conveyed message is a norm.

    Subtle and not-so-subtle nuances are difficult to convey

    Vegas suck.

    If I had a firm to promote I would compare it to a Nation’s Giant Hamburger as available at one of several outlets in the east San Francisco Bay area and with outlets following the growth/spread of the outlaying suburbs; including the easternmost outlet now in Tracy!!!!!!

    Back “in the day” when your Cootness roamed Concord and environs after the majestic never-equaled double cheeseburger with that hint of Oriental flavor from the week-day visit of the roach coach the Nation’s burger was third best.

    Second bet was the cheeseburger at Red’s Java House near the Oakland Bay Bridge last on-ramp in Frisco; a wee bit south of that gnarly ramp (especially when entering with a semi).


    I would associate my firm with a burger joint.

    Make the potential customer salivate with desire for your product.

    “Please don’t drool upon the paint sir/ma’am or you will be required to buy it.”

    “Okay” Drool.

    “That will be 23,557 dollars, sir/ma’aam.”

    “Do you take checks?”

    See… who needs to make a point.

    Damn, I could really eat a burger now but I can’t.


    What bag of frozen veggies should I consume?

    You notice the price of frozen veggies lately?

    Get my point?

  • avatar

    Hey, if I were Gee M, I’d hate myself, too!

  • avatar

    GM just needs to start making insanely great cars and trucks :)

    If the very substrate upon which their products are built kept doubling in “performance” every 18 months, it would be a lot easier for automakers to dazzle as well.

  • avatar
    George B

    Maybe the real strategy for General Motors is to finally recognize that General Motors and it’s “A car for every purse and purpose” strategy has been a sure money losing one for decades. Formally change the corporate name to Chevrolet and jettison everything that gets in the way of building market leading mass market Chevrolet cars and trucks. They lack the brand cachet to compete with German luxury brands and trying diverts resources from making sure the next Chevrolet Malibu or Silverado competes at the top of its class.

  • avatar

    “…a good friend of mine (you know who you are), who knows a hell of a lot, and who throws a hell of a lot into the wind, including the rules of proper capitalization (of words.)”

    e e cummings i presume

  • avatar

    Great blog, great article.
    Apple would be long down the drain, as Ashton-Tate (market share of 90% with office databases), as Borland (once better than Microsoft with development tools) are, would they have followed their “strategy” developed by an overpaid ex-Pepsi honcho without a clue.

  • avatar

    The biggest part of Apple’s success is that their products have become fashion items. Making the earphones of the ipod white instead of black was a real stroke of genius, for instance.

    The joke goes:

    Q. How can you tell if someone has an iphone?

    A. They’ll make sure you know.

    The problem now for the Big 2.8 is to build vehicles that are not only reliable and efficient, but also seen as the most fashionable car to own. The irony is that this was at one time the thing that Detroit was the best at doing.

    • 0 avatar

      2ronnies –

      I actually think I agree with what you’re saying, but not on the surface. Apple has done a great job of creating products that are “fashion items”, but I would argue that they are fashion items in the sense that clothing is always pervasive, necessary and everyone has it. Apple products have become the same – but you don’t see people going out and, en masse, trading in Apple products for the latest and greatest every single iteration just because it’s the new thing in season.

      Apple’s sales do bear out the fact that when they make a generational leap in their products, their sales grow substantially as compared to minor revisions. So in that regard, I would argue they’ve created a very loyal fan base who don’t even look to the competition.

      In some ways, just like cars: you’ll see major sales improvements during product overhauls versus during the product refresh/improvement cycles.

  • avatar

    “Be yourself” is actually a tough one to crack. We use the phrase all the time, but I don’t think any of us has a clear understanding of what that actually means. After all, most people wouldn’t want someone who is arrogant, selfish, malicious, envious, criminal, and so on to continue to just ‘be themselves.’ Most of us would want such a person to change, to become a ‘better person,’ as it were. So what could ‘be yourself’ actually mean?

    One might say to ‘be oneself’ one first has to ‘know thyself,’ but this too is not nearly as simple or easy as it sounds.

    There is a great deal of truth to the claim that “One is as one does” (or has developed a tendency to do–which we usually call ‘character’). If you consistently behave in a selfish manner, then you are selfish. If you are willing to face the things you fear (without being foolhardy), then you are courageous, and so on. So when assessing a person or company, we often focus on the ‘character’ they have developed over the years.

    What is GM’s character? Well, most seem to agree that GM shouldn’t simply return to its past practices because it’s previous character as a company (e.g., arrogant, overly self-confident, unwilling to listen or learn, etc.) was seriously flawed and needs to be improved. What is it’s current character? I would actually suggest that it’s still trying to build one. What model should it follow? Edward (and Bertel, by the sounds of it) seem to be suggesting that, while GM should obviously be willing to listen and learn from others (other situations, other practices, and so on), what it should not do is simply become a follower of others, that is, it shouldn’t be merely reacting to what others do (which is of the character of a follower).

    Followers rarely act, but usually just react, they rarely lead or take an independent path, but usually try instead to simply mimic those practices or fashions that have been employed successfully by others (simply because they seem to work, but without ever really understanding why they do so). Rather than innovate or try something that seems too far outside the box, they will simply continue using what has worked for them in the past, and hence never evolve so as to remain attuned to the ever-shifting conditions of life. I should add here that sometimes reverting to what has worked in the past is actually the best thing to do (which is one of the fundamental tenets of traditional conservatism), but this rule doesn’t apply all the time, and needs to be adjusted as realities shift, and particularly when such shifting occurs at a rapid pace. Knowing when to revise and adjust, however, is one of those great talents that few of us truly have.

    When Edward and Bertel say that GM should ‘be itself,’ I think what they really mean is that GM should, as a company, think for itself (instead of simply mimicking what has worked for others, e.g., Apple). This does not, of course, preclude listening and learning from others (in fact, it probably demands it), but rather to try and develop its own plan and to follow its own path with the general aim of becoming and remaining a successful business in the long run.

    I think the one mistake that many people (and companies) make when it comes to addressing problems, challenges and difficulties is to think that there is some simple and easy ‘formula’ or ‘recipe’ that you can just apply and follow, and all will be well. Self-help books, pop psychology, and ‘inspirational speakers’ are just full of this crap, and people eat it up like it was milk from mother nature’s teat. There is no simple recipe for success in business (or happiness in life). One has to be willing to grow and learn anew, and never stop doing so…

    Sorry for the rant…

    • 0 avatar

      Great rant Philosophil! No need to apologize for it.

    • 0 avatar

      I think what they really mean is that GM should, as a company, think for itself (instead of simply mimicking what has worked for others, e.g., Apple).

      That’s still fairly pithy. Most successful companies aren’t particular unique or sexy or innovative, they just use a reasonable plan and execute it well.

      In any case, most of the discussion about Apple has frankly missed the point. GM is simply claiming that it needs iconic branding, similar to that of Apple. On the surface, that isn’t particularly radical or worthy of much drama.

      But what I haven’t heard is a compelling argument as to why iconic branding is necessary for selling cars. Most successful brands aren’t at all iconic, they’re just dependable and predictable. These brands don’t shake the earth to its core, but help the customer to let him know what he is going to get, assuring him that the purchase won’t be regrettable, which helps to increase sales and price points for those companies that have these brands.

      I’m glad that Akerson understands that GM is ultimately a consumer products company. He’s to be applauded for looking for examples outside of the auto industry from which to borrow.

      But Apple doesn’t provide a very good example for a high-volume car company to follow. The auto industry already has its own version of Apple — it’s called BMW. As it turns out, BMW is a low-volume player that will never have the market share of GM, and in any case, there probably isn’t much room left in the marketplace for another BMW.

      If GM wants to be one of the world’s largest sellers of cars, then chasing icons is a waste of time and money. And trying to move Chevrolet from being a regional brand to a global brand, at the expense of its other regional brands, strikes me as being a particularly poor idea.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah, I agree that’s still fairly pithy, it’s also fairly vague as well (and is more negative than positive in that it is more a statement about what GM shouldn’t do rather than an outline of what they should). Still, I do think it might help clarify, even if just a little bit, what one might mean in saying “be yourself.”

        I do think that iconic branding can be helpful (though not necessary) for selling cars. Thus, having your brand associated with ‘reliability’ or ‘dependability’ can be a big draw for consumers, as well as ‘performance,’ ‘luxury’ and so on. Surely any of these kinds of positive iconic associations can be helpful in drawing people to a certain brand (depending on a person’s interests, preferences, and so on).

      • 0 avatar

        Still, I do think it might help clarify, even if just a little bit, what one might mean in saying “be yourself.”

        I would still dispute it. There’s nothing wrong with using role models or shamelessly copying marketing models that work, just so long as they are relevant to and effective for the company that is doing the copying. There’s nothing holy or important about being unique, and in many cases, uniqueness is great way to lose money.

      • 0 avatar

        I thought I included that when I said that one should “listen and learn from others,” and “that sometimes reverting to what has worked in the past is actually the best thing to do” (which would obviously include “copying marketing models that work”).

        I wasn’t implying that one couldn’t do as others had done successfully. That would be silly. There’s a difference between doing the same thing because it’s the best thing to do, and doing the same thing simply because it worked for someone else (i.e., simple mimicking without knowing why it worked, or whether it will work again, or whether it will work in your particular circumstances and case, and so on). I was advocating the former, not the latter.

  • avatar

    Apple is just doing what Microsoft, Nokia and Google did years ago. Make your products easy to use even though there’s nothing really revolutionary about them.

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