Bob Lutz, PR Guru: How "Too Much Quality" Is Killing Automotive PR

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Knowing that some of the top PR professionals in the business are regular readers of TTAC (they could be anyone…), I can imagine a number of them shaking their heads in disapproval at the headline of this post. “It’s happened,” they’re probably muttering to themselves, “TTAC has finally lost the plot.” But instead of dismissing out of hand the seemingly preposterous premise of this post, I ask the assembled anonymous masses of PR pros to bear with me for a moment. As laughable as it might seem to postulate that the industry’s spin doctors can learn something from the most infamously “off the reservation” auto exec ever, the urge to write off this post is part of the very problem I hope to tackle. Allow me to explain…

With the depth of the financial crisis-precipitated recession behind us, and the auto industry showing some signs of returning to normalcy (if not the “old normal”), the temptation to rely on proven practices must be greater than ever. But although the industry is doubtless in better shape than it was a year ago (let alone two years ago), this is no time to sink back into complacency. Beneath the short-term shocks of the last several years, is a rising tide of more subtle challenges which are all-too easy to ignore. From weak products to increases in traffic, from government regulation to the social sphere’s shift towards the online world, a number of factors are conspiring to hollow out the industry’s cultural relevance, especially in “mature markets.” In Japan, the decline of the automobile has been so dramatic it’s even inspired a name for the emerging post-automobile order: kuruma banare. And if business-as-usual continues in the US, we’ll see that trend pick up pace here as well.

So, you might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with PR? After all, the in-depth studies of kuruma banare identify it as the product of a number of trends (referenced above), many of which seem unavoidable. Though I wouldn’t pretend to have a definitive answer to the waning cultural appeal of automobiles, I am convinced that a paradigm shift in how automakers view and practice PR is the first step in revitalizing the image of the most powerful and sophisticated consumer good on the market. And the core of that shift can be found in, of all places, the writings of one Robert Lutz.

In his first book, Guts, the then-recently retired Chrysler product development boss laid out seven idiosyncratic “laws of business,” with such blasphemous titles as “The Customer Isn’t Always Right” and “Financial Controls Are Bad!” They’re the kind of “laws” that, on the surface, add to Lutz’s reputation as “overly opinionated” and a “loose cannon,” but for an industry built on consistency and process, they represent an eye-opening counterpoint to conventional wisdom. Which is, in my mind, precisely what is called for to combat a rising tide of automotive apathy.

For the purposes of this piece, let’s concentrate on Law Four: “Too Much Quality Can Ruin You.” As a consummate “product guy,” with a well-documented disdain for the entire business of PR (more on that in a minute), Lutz doesn’t mention spin-doctoring in his law, but the core of his argument applies nicely to it. Towards the end of the chapter on Law Four, he sums up:

“Given two extremes- “zero defects with no delight” and “delight with a few squeaks in it”- the public will always buy the latter.

Lutz revisits the theme in his latest book, Car Guys vs. Bean Counters, in which he publishes a memo he circulated through GM shortly after arriving there, aimed at repairing its moribund new product development system. In the last of ten rules with which he hoped to smash GM’s institutional reluctance to develop great products, he writes

Remember the Bob Lutz motto: “Often wrong but seldom in doubt.” None of us is infallible, and we all make errors. Remember baseball, where a batting average of .400 is unheard of! But pushing and arguing for what you believe to be the right course (while recognizing you just might be wrong, therefore, still willing to listen) is the key to moving forward. Errors of commission are less damaging to us than errors of omission. In our business, taking no risk is to accept the certainty of long-term failure. (Even Aztek, in this sense, is noble!)

This approach is essentially Lutzian, producing occasional “sins of commission” like the Pontiac Solstice’s compromised ergonomics and practicality, but also fundamentally changing the image of GM’s products. Apply this line of thinking to the world of PR, instead of just product development, and you’ll understand the essence of my argument.

Public Relations, by definition, is about creating a product: positive news and analysis about your company. And the higher “quality” this product is, the better your career as a PR professional will be. But what is “quality,” actually? With apologies to Robert Prsig, the best synonym in the industrial context is “consistency.” Consistently good news, generated with consistent regularity is the “product” the PR professional aspires to. Everything else is to be avoided or suppressed. But what few, if any, PR professionals (or the people who employ them) seem to understand, is that “too much quality” can kill PR strategically, even as it achieves tactical goals (obvious “wins” and attendant promotions).

What the “quality” paradigm leaves out of PR is an understanding of the consumers of PR. Just as GM failed to understand that a sixth-generation Malibu design that had “zero compromises” (based on its internal product development rules) could be utterly mediocre and unappealing to consumers, Automotive PR professionals fail to understand (or accept) that an endless flow of perfectly consistent positive news is equally unappealing. Nothing about the millenia of evolution that has shaped modern man has prepared us for the kind of “quality” the PR business provides; The human mind thrives on contrast, deriving equal enjoyment from a thrilling roller-coaster one minute, and a warm drink and good book the next. We understand reality through the twists and turns of narrative, the interplay between hero and villain, the drama of the rising power and the crumbling empire. Modern PR provides us with none of these things, preferring blindered, parallel flows of positive information: a “perfect mediocrity” (another Lutz-ism) that interests only those who are paid to feign interest in it.

These thoughts had been rattling around my brain ever since I began diving into Lutz’s work in preparation for my review of Car Guys, and when I met Lutz in person for the first time last week, I shared with him an abbreviated version of the argument you’ve been reading here. To my surprise, the idea of applying his product philosophy to PR had never occurred to him, although he seemed intrigued by the parallels. And then it occurred to me that this was precisely the point: though he’s always exercising his own form of PR, he’s never spared a moment’s thought for the traditional or tactical practices of the PR profession. Which is precisely why he is, love him or hate him, the sole towering industry figure in the imaginations of car guys and auto journalists. Yes, part of his appeal has to do with other aspects of his product philosophy and the vehicles he helped create, but the fact that he has no internal PR “quality control” makes him wholly unlike anyone else in the industry. The wild inconsistency between his penetrating insights and his flamboyant (for lack of a better word) bullshit is the antithesis of industrial PR “quality” and the key to his appeal.

As I left his rural spread just outside Ann Arbor, it occurred to me (and not for the first time) that there might well never be another auto executive like Lutz again. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine the industry ever overcoming the relentless loss of relevance and excitement that’s occurred as high modernity fades in society’s rear-view mirror. Yes, the cars themselves are important. But the people who dream them to life, create them from raw materials, and represent and defend them in the public space have to live up to the huge social and cultural impact that cars promise. In particular, the PR pros have to learn that eliminating risk is, to quote Bob one more time, “to accept the certainty of long-term failure.”

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Darkhorse Darkhorse on Aug 30, 2011

    Kuruma Banare indeed. It's like waxing eloquent about the Surrey with the Fringe on The Top in 1911. I knew the era of the car was over when I asked my twins (eight years old) if they'd help me rebuild the engine in my old Porsche 911. "No way Dad. That's your stinky car that pees on the garage!" If my dad had had a Porsche when I was eight I'd of thought I was king of the world. Even though I didn't know what a Porsche was then.

  • Dynamic88 Dynamic88 on Aug 30, 2011

    If I'm understanding the point of this article -and I may not be understanding it- too much "quality" PR (defined as relentlessly upbeat positive news, while denying or downplaying anything negative) is dull, and uninspiring. Better to take Henry Ford's attitude - Every Ford joke sells a car? On appliances: predictably, cars have again been compared to appliances in the context of "reliable but boring". I want to suggest that washers, dryers, 'fridges, et. al. are a lot more exciting to many people than car guys assume. First, one might like an appliance for it's reliability - thin Maytag before it was bought by Whirlpool. While there is no longer a reason to buy a Maytag, as they are no longer the quality leader, one might still seek reliability as their highest priority. I don't know what brand one would prefer, if reliability was the chief concern. As an aside, an Italian friend of mine commented that European appliances were much better than American ones, though he allowed that American appliances are more durable. It took me some time to wrap my head around that - being, as I am, reliability oriented. But he prefers to have more features and buttons, and is willing to give up some reliability. But there are other aspects of appliances. Why do people buy Sub Zero refrigerators? To show they have money. To show they are "into" cooking and need to have the finest equipment in their kitchen. In short, the same reasons one buys a Lexus or a MB. Why do people buy Bosch appliances? Because, manifestly, they show that this is not your Grandmother's kitchen. Conversely, people are buying retro appliances - -expressly to show that their kitchen is like Grandma's, with the implication that one can cook like Grandma. People also pay several thousand dollars to have old originals restored to better than new condition. Another aside, people remodeling kitchens on a budget have a devil of a time finding suitable looking appliances. Appliance manufacturers are loosing out on a niche market for retro styled yet affordable appliances. A cousin of mine keeps her Mother's old wringer washer. She has a new washer too, but she likes using the old one fairly regularly. It's just like a guy keeping his fathers car in the garage and getting it out once in a while. The old one doesn't do anything as well as the new one (and I mean both washers and cars) but they are a connection to "simpler" times and fond memories. Appliances choices say things about income level, social group, what counts as good taste in one's social group, sophistication, being up with the latest trends, etc. etc. Just like with cars, they can be much more than utilitarian machines that get the job done. And, like appliances, cars can sometimes (oft times?) be treated as boring appliances that serve only our transportation needs. If you are having difficulty understanding why your wife isn't "into" cars, it's because she views a car the same way you view the washer/dryer combo. OTOH, if you were to view appliances the way you view cars, you'd realize that there is a lot more going on in the manufacture and marketing of appliances than just offering machines that get the job done. Finally, appliances are becoming less durable and reliable. It's unlikely your new 'fridge will be operating 60 years from now, the way your grandparent's 'fridge does (You know, that one you keep the beer in, out in the garage). Appliances are more feature laden, but total cost of ownership is going up because the machines need to be replaced more frequently. Conversely cars are becoming more feature laden, yet more reliable and durable. It's not hard to keep a car for 150K miles anymore. Even 200-250K is getting common. Your father needed several cars to go 150K miles. Adjusting the costs to compare old $s with new $s, your father probably had higher TC of ownership than you do. So perhaps we should not be so quick to label cars as "boring appliances". Besides, your Granny's V6 Camry will walk your Grandpa's '64 GTO, while also stopping and turning better by several orders of magnitude. The "appliances" are much much better cars than anything available a generation ago.

    • CamaroKid CamaroKid on Aug 31, 2011

      Wow an appliance enthusiast! and On an car enthusiast site! OK, while all of what you post is true and accurate, you miss, like others, the size of the market of people who buy the 23db Bosch Dishwasher or the Sub Zero fridge that blends into the Red Cabriuva cabinetry, or the Industrial grade double oven gas range that could be used to forge steel or cast aluminum. The reality is that most people buy plain white, zero feature, GE appliances that cost a few hundred and are expected to last 10 years, If the appliance only lasts 5 then the next time they buy LG (or some other equally boring brand). Of those a few upgrade to the "V6 Limited" and get the almost as boring "wannabe" Stainless Steel version that they hope will last 12 years. The parallel with most commuter cars bought is obvious. And the parallel with boring PR is obvious too.. Maytag ads used to be about just how boring their products were. They did nothing special, they just worked, while the repairman developed agoraphobia.. Of course when this was no longer the case and Maytag Neptune washers proved more likely to catch fire than wash your clothes (and on a scale of one to 10 how exciting is a smoldering washing machine?) they were toast (pun intended). Long and the short of it. Is there a market for "exciting" appliances? Sure, but lets be honest, while everyone might want a over the top subzero fridge with a built in tv and a laser to etch your family crest into each ice cube... The vast majority of people never buy those. As for PR, "exciting" PR will work in the short run, but the second you look goofy, disingenuous, hypocritical, or just plain wrong you are going to lose way more than you gain. Its long since time for Lutz to STFU and fade away.

  • Varezhka I have still yet to see a Malibu on the road that didn't have a rental sticker. So yeah, GM probably lost money on every one they sold but kept it to boost their CAFE numbers.I'm personally happy that I no longer have to dread being "upgraded" to a Maxima or a Malibu anymore. And thankfully Altima is also on its way out.
  • Tassos Under incompetent, affirmative action hire Mary Barra, GM has been shooting itself in the foot on a daily basis.Whether the Malibu cancellation has been one of these shootings is NOT obvious at all.GM should be run as a PROFITABLE BUSINESS and NOT as an outfit that satisfies everybody and his mother in law's pet preferences.IF the Malibu was UNPROFITABLE, it SHOULD be canceled.More generally, if its SEGMENT is Unprofitable, and HALF the makers cancel their midsize sedans, not only will it lead to the SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST ones, but the survivors will obviously be more profitable if the LOSERS were kept being produced and the SMALL PIE of midsize sedans would yield slim pickings for every participant.SO NO, I APPROVE of the demise of the unprofitable Malibu, and hope Nissan does the same to the Altima, Hyundai with the SOnata, Mazda with the Mazda 6, and as many others as it takes to make the REMAINING players, like the Excellent, sporty Accord and the Bulletproof Reliable, cheap to maintain CAMRY, more profitable and affordable.
  • GregLocock Car companies can only really sell cars that people who are new car buyers will pay a profitable price for. As it turns out fewer and fewer new car buyers want sedans. Large sedans can be nice to drive, certainly, but the number of new car buyers (the only ones that matter in this discussion) are prepared to sacrifice steering and handling for more obvious things like passenger and cargo space, or even some attempt at off roading. We know US new car buyers don't really care about handling because they fell for FWD in large cars.
  • Slavuta Why is everybody sweating? Like sedans? - go buy one. Better - 2. Let CRV/RAV rust on the dealer lot. I have 3 sedans on the driveway. My neighbor - 2. Neighbors on each of our other side - 8 SUVs.
  • Theflyersfan With sedans, especially, I wonder how many of those sales are to rental fleets. With the exception of the Civic and Accord, there are still rows of sedans mixed in with the RAV4s at every airport rental lot. I doubt the breakdown in sales is publicly published, so who knows... GM isn't out of the sedan business - Cadillac exists and I can't believe I'm typing this but they are actually decent - and I think they are making a huge mistake, especially if there's an extended oil price hike (cough...Iran...cough) and people want smaller and hybrids. But if one is only tied to the quarterly shareholder reports and not trends and the big picture, bad decisions like this get made.