General Motors Death Watch 143: Off Target

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
general motors death watch 143 off target

I’d like to meet the idiot who thought that the Cadillac BLS was a good idea. Actually, I’d like to meet the group of idiots who said sure, let’s create a small, badge-engineered Saab, fit it with a diesel engine, call it a Caddy and sell it to Europeans, South Africans and Mexicans. No, wait; just sit me down in front of the idiot who gave the other idiots the power to green light the idiot who had the idiotic idea in the first place. And I’ll ask him straight out: what part of branding don’t you understand? You know, other than all of it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that everyone inside the artist formerly known as the world’s largest automaker is completely clueless as to what kind of cars the company should be building. Just the ones making the decisions.

Of course, that’s a prima facie argument when you’re facing a born loser like the Cadillac BLS, a car that’s as far from “the standard of the world” as Target is from a “premium shopping experience.” But GM's brand confusion is equally obvious if you look elsewhere, at the other automobiles in The General's over-stuffed portfolio. I mean, what would you think about GM’s branding expertise if I told you that the above description of Target comes from the man behind the new Chevrolet Malibu?

It’s true. Clay Dean, GM's former design director of small and mid-sized cars, told Automotive News that the new Malibu will provide a “premium experience with a low price tag,” and then compared the model to Target. I don’t know about you, but the last time I went to Target I didn’t think, wow, this is just like one of those upmarket boutique type stores, only cheaper.

Target a cut-price Neiman Marcus? Hardly. I could try and complete that analogy– Malibu a cut-price Saab?– but readers’ sniggers would draw unwanted attention from their cubicle providers. Anyway, if Dean and GM had just left it at that– Malibu as Target– you could almost say, well, OK, Target makes money. Thing is, the company isn't even that focused; Clay's comment is just one small part of the Malibu’s aimless wander though the branding wilderness.

According to Automotive News, Ed Peper, Chevrolet's general manager, and Cheryl Catton, general director of Chevrolet's car marketing, went to see some honest-to-God customers who (gasp) bought something other than a Malibu (no names mentioned). The suits’ mission: figure out how to market the General’s next, next big thing/Hail Mary/new ’Bu.

The article's lead misleads readers into thinking the dynamic duo made random house calls (which would have shown some genuine stones). In fact, Peper and Catton visited pre-selected import lovers and asked them to define quality, reliability and dependability.

Hang on; shouldn’t they have been asking these questions BEFORE building the Malibu? I mean, if these target (pun intended) consumers said “I define quality as a door that shuts like a bank vault” and the Malibu’s portals close with all the precision of a Chinese-made Fairly Odd Parents’ lunchbox, what then?

Anyway, let’s assume that Peper and Catton simply wanted to know what wonderful things they should emphasize about their wonderful new Malibu. Then they’re still wrong. Creating a product that does one thing better than anyone else is the essence of branding. Even if you extend that philosophy to two or three attributes, the die was cast when the dies were cast. If you don’t know your car’s killer app by the time you build the damn thing, it's too late to re-boot.

Anyway, what did Peper and Catton say they learned from their ding-dong GM calling experience? “Consumers rank three core qualities as important when deciding on a mid-sized car: exterior styling, value and reliability.”

So, the heavy hitters went looking for definitions of core values and came back with the usual market research.

Excuse me: who ARE these people? Why are they in charge of a multi-billion dollar automaking enterprise? They’re minions of GM's President of North America, Troy Clarke, who “challenged” Peper and Catton to keep it party real. And who put Clarke at the helm? GM CEO Rick Wagoner.

The Italians say the fish stinks from the head down. Well, there you go. GM lifer and former CFO Rick Wagoner is the man who (at a minimum) destroyed any remaining brand equity within Cadillac, Buick, Saab, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Chevrolet. Even if GM’s North American operations were making money, Wagoner should be held accountable for allowing his employees to engage in the mindless obliteration of GM’s most precious assets.

When GM introduced the BLS, they claimed they would sell 20k units per year. Last year, they sold 218. So far this year, they’ve shifted less than a dozen. Ladies and gentlemen, I rest my case.

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2 of 73 comments
  • Ex-dtw Ex-dtw on Aug 28, 2007

    Agreed - Rabid Rick should not even be allowed to apply for a loan at GMAC for fear of losses. That said, branding is NOT doing one thing better than anyone else. A brand is a promise, plain and simple. The equity in the brand is derived from whether the customer believes that promise will be honored. Lastly, sales and inherently based on if that promise means anything to a customer. That is where these jokers have fallen down, they can't figure out what these promises should be. Pathetic. And why there is no equity, promises keep getting broken.

  • Jthorner Jthorner on Aug 29, 2007

    It is interesting to see how rapidly Fiat has become reenergized so shortly after it's divorce from GM. GM management paid $2B just to not continue it's partnership with Fiat, then Fiat turns around and starts putting out hot vehicles across the spectrum. Even Maserati has been thoroughly reborn. It is stunning how bad so much of US industrial management has become.

  • ToolGuy CXXVIII comments?!?
  • ToolGuy I did truck things with my truck this past week, twenty-odd miles from home (farther than usual). Recall that the interior bed space of my (modified) truck is 98" x 74". On the ride home yesterday the bed carried a 20 foot extension ladder (10 feet long, flagged 14 inches past the rear bumper), two other ladders, a smallish air compressor, a largish shop vac, three large bins, some materials, some scrap, and a slew of tool cases/bags. It was pretty full, is what I'm saying.The range of the Cybertruck would have been just fine. Nothing I carried had any substantial weight to it, in truck terms. The frunk would have been extremely useful (lock the tool cases there, out of the way of the Bed Stuff, away from prying eyes and grasping fingers -- you say I can charge my cordless tools there? bonus). Stainless steel plus no paint is a plus.Apparently the Cybertruck bed will be 78" long (but over 96" with the tailgate folded down) and 60-65" wide. And then Tesla promises "100 cubic feet of exterior, lockable storage — including the under-bed, frunk and sail pillars." Underbed storage requires the bed to be clear of other stuff, but bottom line everything would have fit, especially when we consider the second row of seats (tools and some materials out of the weather).Some days I was hauling mostly air on one leg of the trip. There were several store runs involved, some for 8-foot stock. One day I bummed a ride in a Roush Mustang. Three separate times other drivers tried to run into my truck (stainless steel panels, yes please). The fuel savings would be large enough for me to notice and to care.TL;DR: This truck would work for me, as a truck. Sample size = 1.
  • Art Vandelay Dodge should bring this back. They could sell it as the classic classic classic model
  • Surferjoe Still have a 2013 RDX, naturally aspirated V6, just can't get behind a 4 banger turbo.Also gloriously absent, ESS, lane departure warnings, etc.
  • ToolGuy Is it a genuine Top Hand? Oh, I forgot, I don't care. 🙂