General Motors Zombie Watch 17: May the Best Automaker Win

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
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general motors zombie watch 17 may the best automaker win

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.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • DeadEd DeadEd on Sep 12, 2009

    This comparison campaign strikes me as GM's latest check-the-boxes advertizing. You know, the one's that show that the Chevy Bloat-box has every standard (or optional) feature as the Toyota Bland, but gives you one extra mile per gallon. Great. The problem is the execution. I remember back about a decade, when they did one of these with the then new Chevy Malibu. My rental had every feature that the Camry did. But the switchgear in the Malibu looked like it was mold-waste from a plastic model. The engine made more noise than power, and the transmission hunted for gears constantly. Don't get me started on the ride and handling. In short, the boxes were checked, but the execution didn't live up to the competition. If GM wants me to comparison shop their product, they're going to have to present a product that will withstand a showroom and test-drive comparison. A check-the-boxes on a sheet of paper comparison isn't going to cut it. Even then, they're going to have to undercut the competition significantly on price until their product has earned a reputation for reliability and resale value.

  • Jmatt Jmatt on Sep 21, 2009

    "May the Best Car Win". NOW they want to start this head to head competition? After screwing their bondholders, destroying their equity, declaring bankruptcy and being handed a $50 billion dollar snack courtesy of the taxpayers? This competition was over the day GM went belly-up and applied for welfare. GM lost. The UAW lost. The market has spoken and it doesn't want you. And the fact that despite the second chance at life you have been given, that you STILL do not realize that your *reputation* is the thing that is killing you will only make your final bankruptcy even more hilarious. The New GM should have run as far away as possible from the old GM. And I mean dumping your logo and all of your brands and car names. I mean, seriously, Buick? Is it still 1963? I don't know a single person that would even consider purchasing a Buick. That the spokesman for the new ad campaign is a white-haired, doddering old man is perfectly apropos. They just don't get it. Nobody realizes it yet, but this auto bailout will be Obama's VietNam. After the screwing they gave the last set of owners, no investor in his right mind would consider purchasing GM equity or debt. It won't be sold by 2010 (just 14 short months) and it will be bankrupt again just in time for 2012 the elections.

  • Charles When I lived in Los Angeles I saw a 9-5 a few times and instanly admired the sweeping low slug aerodynamic jet tech influenced lines and all that beautiful glass. The car was very different from what I expected from a Saab even though the 900 Turbo was nice. A casual lady friend had a Saab Sonnet, never drove or rode in it but nonetheless chilled my enthusiasm and I eventually forgot about Saabs. In the following years I have had seven Mercedes's, three or four Jaguars even two Daimlers both the 250 V-8 and the massive and powerful Majestic Major. Daily drivers of a brand new 300ZX 2+2 and Lincolns, plus a few diesel trucks. Having moved to my big farm in central New York, trucks and SUV's are the standard, even though I have a Mercedes S500 in one of my barns. Due to circumstances with my Ford Explorer and needing a second driver I found the 2006 9-5 locally. Very little surface rust, none undercarriage, original owner, garage kept, wife driver and all the original literature and a ton of paid receipts and history. The car just turned 200,000 miles and I love it. Feels new like I'm back in my Nissan 300ZX with a lot more European class and ready power with the awesome turbo. So fun to drive, the smooth power and torque is incredible! Great price paid to justify going through the car and giving her everything she needs, i.e., new tires, battery, all shocks, struts, control arms, timing chain and rust removable to come, plus more. The problem now is I want to restore it and likely put it in my concrete barn and only drive in good weather. As to the writer, Alex Dykes, I take great exception calling the 9-5 Saab "ugly," finding myself looking back at her beauty and uniqueness. Moreover, I get new looks from others not quite recognizing, like the days out west with my more expensive European cars. There are Saabs eclipsing 300K rourinely and one at a million miles and I believe one car with 500K on the original engine. So clearly, this is a keeper, in love already with my SportCombi. I want to be in that elite club.
  • Marky S. I own the same C.C. XSE Hybrid AWD as in this article, but in Barcelona Red with the black roof. I love my car for its size, packaging, and the fact that it offers both AWD and Hybrid technology together. Visibility is impressive, as is its small turning circle. I consider the C.C. more of a "station wagon" by proportion, rather than an “SUV.” It is fun to drive, with zippy response and perky pick-up. It is a pleasant car to drive and ride in. It is not trying to be a “Butch Off-Roader”, or a cosseting “Luxury Cruiser.” Those are not its goals or purpose. The Corolla Cross XSE Hybrid AWD is a wonderful All-Purpose Car (O.K. – “SUV” if you must hear me say it!) with a combination of all the features it has at a reasonable price.
  • Ernesto Perez There's a line in the movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis says " is this the best idea NASA came up with?". Don't quote me. I'm asking is this the best idea NY came up with? What's next? Charging pedestrians to walk in certain parts of the city? Every year the price for everything gets more expensive and most of the services we pay for gets worse. Obviously more money is not the solution. What we need are better ideas, strategies and inventions. You want to charge drivers in the city - then put tolls on the free bridges like the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. There's always a better way or product. It's just the idiots on top think they know best.
  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.