General Motors Death Watch 173: Eight Into Four Does Not Go

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

GM is re-organizing its corporate structure. It’s putting its eight brands into four divisions under four car czarettes, in a three-three-one-one configuration. For those of you who can’t guess which GM brand will go with which (as there’s no neat, logical way to make these groupings), it’s Cadillac, Hummer and Saab; Buick, Pontiac and GMC; and Saturn and Chevy on their lonesome. “We are further streamlining the organization,” GM’s President of North America announced. “To reduce complexity, align resources to improve the consumer experience and improve bottom line business results." It’s a deeply misguided maneuver.

The problem with GM’s restructuring is patently obvious. What exactly does the Cadillac brand have to do with Hummer? Caddy is supposed to be GM’s upmarket answer to BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and (less charitably) Infiniti and Acura. Hummer offers a limited range of pseudo-military, gas-guzzling off-roaders competing with Jeep, Land Rover and Toyota’s Land Cruiser. Saab– an ostensibly Euro (Nordic?) near-luxury brand– is a better fit with Cadillac. But better doesn’t mean good.

The combination of Buick, Pontiac and GMC (BPG in GM-speak) doesn’t offer even a glimmer of unifying logic. Doctors cars (and a CUV), performance-oriented vehicles and gussied-up Chevy trucks? It’s like lemon maple fudge ice cream. Although no one at GM (or within the automotive media) seems particularly bothered by this bizarre new “sales channel” development, how is the “customer experience” improved by the creation of such an odd trifecta of car brands?

If the customer-facing side of this concept is dubious to the point of dementia, reorganizing GM to “streamline” the bureaucracy to reflect these shotgun marriages makes even less sense. In fact, by placing BPG and, uh, CSH into twin fiefdoms, GM is reinforcing a mistake of gargantuan proportions, guaranteeing that it will forever remain in branding Hell. Think of it this way…

There is no way GM can create compelling products that sustain eight coherent automotive marques by grabbing a generic anycar off the shelf and tweaking it here and there to fit some pre-determined idea of a brand's demands. In theory, perhaps. In practice, the Saab 9-7X. With large scale intra-brand platform, drivetrain and components sharing, the temptation to cut corners, to dumb-down the possibility of brand-specific excellence for “easy money” or the greater good, is simply too great. Ipso facto.

Consolidating BPG and CSH is bound to accentuate this problem. While turning eight hungry mouths into four must be an orgasmic idea for GM’s Beancounter-in-Chief and his Beancounter COO, it will destroy what little remains of GM’s octo-brand equity and sink the company even deeper into its current morass of mediocrity. That’s because maintaining brand independence is not an administrative issue. It’s the key to excellence.

Great brands– and thus great products– are the result of a corporate culture deeply dedicated to particular way of seeing the world. You can argue about BMW’s realization of its "ultimate driving machine" ethos, but this guiding principle dominates every aspect of the German automaker’s existence. You can see it in the choice of office furniture. The pictures on the wall of their HQ’s cafeteria. The hushed tones in the waiting room. And you can feel it around a corner, even in Bimmer’s most “piggish” vehicles.

Compare and contrast this situation with Saturn. If “what is a Saturn” is a tough question, “WHERE is Saturn” is a logical corollary. BMW may have field ops in Spartanburg and Shenyang, but its heart is in Munich. You could make a coherent argument that the Saturn brand died when they left Spring Hill, Tennessee; a southern enclave whose honesty and friendliness informed the entire company.

Putting Buick, Pontiac and GMC under one roof– whether metaphorically or literally– will rip the heart and soul out of all three brands. In many important ways, they will simply cease to exist. The same Borg-like assimilation will afflict Cadillac, Hummer and Saab, with equally disastrous results.

Greater integration of executive control for these six GM brands is the exact opposite of what The General should be doing to guarantee their survival– if their survival is, indeed, the goal. It will accelerate the process of badge-engineering that has bedeviled the company post Alfred P. Sloan. And, ironically enough, the consolidation of power under two executives will exacerbate the executive infighting that has been the hallmark of GM’s long, slow, painful fall from grace.

If you doubt the accuracy of this analysis, re-read Troy Clarke’s quote at the beginning of this article. While the Prez’ suggestion that GM should “reduce complexity” is about as controversial as motherhood, the main, indeed central problem with GM NA is that its products LACK complexity. Or, more accurately, individuality. How does placing six disparate brands into two new fiefdoms create distinct, distinctive and marketable products? Answer: it doesn’t.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • Speedlaw Speedlaw on Apr 21, 2008

    If they dumped all of the brands (I know, impossible) and grouped the product as General Motors only, then things might make sense. You should be able to buy the Caddy, the Hummer, the SAAB, the Malibu, and the Vette under one roof. Each "body style" gets one iteration. End the pointless multiple one cares, and has not since the mid seventies. Use some of the money saved to make a decent car. Put a hundred dollars more at the assembly side per vehicle and you would exceed the competition. IN the alternate, just keep up making pointless differences, stock the same parts three times, and wonder why no one in the more desirable areas buys your cars. I was raised on GM. We were a GM family. was.

  • Simonptn Simonptn on Apr 22, 2008
    Deckchairs. Titanic. Admirably apt. Time to start wondering who the survivors will be. If there was any justice (or class) Rick and Bob would go down with the ship. But I fear there is neither. Sad really.
  • EBFlex At the summer property putting boats in the water, leveling boat lifts, cleaning the lots for summer, etc. Typical cabin stuff in the most beautiful place on the planet
  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.