The Latest Auto Extremist
Mr. Hackett?s Quixotic Quest.
19 Jun 2017 at 7:10pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. While writing this column over the years, I have tried to convey that Detroit is a company town like no other. Yes, there are other company towns that come to mind, of course, like L.A. and its omnipresent Hollywood raison d’etre. But Detroit? Well, it’s the company town of company towns.
Suspend what you’ve read or heard about the latest Detroit renaissance for a moment, because this just in: It’s real but only selectively intermittent, and don’t for a moment think that what we have going on here qualifies as The Shining City on the Hill by any stretch. The constant din of “we got it goin’ on” cheerleading in the local news has almost become unbearable, and there’s no end in sight. The city even has a glittery new light rail system called the QLine, which has become "The $137 million Answer to the Question That Absolutely No One was Asking Super Slo-Mo Train to Nowhere" literally overnight. So despite all that’s going on, or not going on in Dee-troit (aka HomerVille USA), depending on how you look at it, it’s easy to see that not all that much has actually changed in the giant scheme of things.
To wit? Executive realignments and corporate restructurings at the car companies and their suppliers still merit front-page news. Not just in the business sections of the newspapers and in focused features on Internet sites, but front and center as the dominant lead stories, surpassing even the latest hand-wringing du jour going on in the national news.
And when you live around these parts you’ll find that everywhere you go you’ll stumble upon a car display - at shopping malls, at corporate-sponsored charity events and golf tournaments, at high school and collegiate football games, and on and on. Everywhere you turn there’s some sort of vehicle display, which is more than a little mystifying when you really think about it because this is, after all, a region where 75 percent of the residents have some sort of direct or indirect connection with either an auto company or a major supplier. It begs the question: When we already eat, sleep and breathe this business 24/7, do you still need a car display to remind you what business we’re all connected to? Weird, right?
But this is only a brief snapshot of the landscape around here designed to set the table for what I really want to discuss today.
Last month, Bill Ford decided to make a change at the top of his family’s car company. Still smarting from the departure of the much-loved Alan Mulally three years after the fact, Ford grew impatient with Mulally’s replacement – Mark Fields – and jettisoned him in favor of one of his very best friends, Jim Hackett. Fields only delivered two of the most profitable years in the company’s history but, you know, “things just didn’t work out” or something like that.
And Hackett? He is the former Steelcase CEO who also did an interim stint as the University of Michigan’s athletic director. Hackett’s U of M connection? He was once on a Bo Schembechler-coached football team where he was able to learn valuable leadership and management lessons. His other claim to fame? He recruited Jim Harbaugh to take over the football program before he moved on to other things. Like running the Ford Motor Company.
Hackett has been the subject of many stories in the local media since he was anointed as the next Ford CEO, as is to be expected. But there have been a remarkable number of them, even for this town. Much of that has to do with this story being the biggest thing to hit this company town in a while, but it also has to do with the fact that Bill Ford, amid myriad other management changes, replaced the company’s public relations director with media and Ford veteran Mark Truby. And the PR function is now directly reporting to – ta-dah - Bill Ford himself.
Why? Well, Bill Ford’s name is on the door, lest anyone forget, and if he wants the story of his friend Jim Hackett’s ascendancy to be CEO of the Ford Motor Company handled just so, then so it shall be. Ford wants everyone to get to know the Jim he knows and likes, and if a story thread emerges that Hackett is remarkably like Alan Mulally, well, even better.
Hackett, as portrayed by the latest Ford PR spin, is supposed to be a gifted, contemporary, “inclusive” leader, one who prefers small meetings and swift action, and places extraordinary emphasis on personal integrity. He’s a “visionary” with extensive Silicon Valley connections and a deep understanding of how New Technology and its fundamental design imperative will shape our future and everyday life, someone who is not entrenched in the automobile business or in the Ford Motor Company’s moribund excuse for a “culture.” Sounds excellent, no?
In the latest – and lengthy - front-page feature on Hackett that appeared this past Sunday in the Detroit Free Press, Brent Snavely wrote what is – at least from Ford’s perspective – the definitive, in-depth, get-to-know Jim Hackett piece. (By the way, as is this company town’s wont, many carpal-tunnel-stained members of the media are now furiously jockeying to tell the story of Jim Hackett’s rise to become CEO of the Ford Motor Company in an “approved” book. It will be only semi-interesting to see who lands that “get.” And we’ll all find out soon enough.)
The big takeaways from Snavely’s piece? Bill Ford wants to accelerate the company’s decision-making and drive an increased focus on innovation, and to that end Hackett and Ford want to "create a flatter structure so that it doesn’t feel the weight of hierarchy on every decision."
That’s a lot to chew on, especially for a company such as Ford, which is dominated by its notoriously siloed culture and its seemingly endless network of fiefdoms filled with lethal, pitchfork-wielding operatives hell bent on maintaining the status quo at all costs. (You might ask, at this juncture, didn’t Alan Mulally do away with all of the hordes of negative sabre-rattlers during his tenure? No, but by the sheer force of Mulally’s will and presence those entities were shamed to go under ground. They’re back now, in full force.)
But Jim Hackett has a plan. In fact he has a 100-day plan that will be, according to him, transformative and help lead the Ford Motor Company to new heights. It consists of four main points, according to Snavely:
1. Reevaluate revenue opportunities.
2. Evaluate the fitness of the company.
3. Reevaluate capital deployment.
4. Renew focus on innovation.
Okay, none of this stuff is earth shattering by any means; in fact most of it is restating the obvious. Let me translate it for you:
1. In a declining auto market, Ford has to make more money, wherever and however it can.
2. Ford, as a company, has to be better and more efficient.
3. If Ford isn’t making money in certain aspects of its business, either fix it or stop doing it.
4. Ford will be vital part of the new mobility business, and all that entails.
This is all well and good, and on top of all of that if Hackett can instill more touchy-feelyness into what passes for the Ford culture, then more power to him because it will make Bill Ford very, very happy. But seriously, who’s kidding whom here? With all due respect to Mr. Hackett, his carefully worded platitudes about fostering a collaborative working environment to drive innovation might have sounded good at Steelcase or in a TED lecture that he attended, but the last time I checked the Ford Motor Company is not only a giant global manufacturing enterprise with a set of wide-ranging and never-ending challenges, it is also involved in one of the most complicated endeavors that exists on this earth. In other words, designing, engineering and building cars and trucks really doesn’t have anything to do with platitudes or pronouncements.
And to make matters even more daunting for Mr. Hackett, Ford, as a company, goes about its business wrapped in a suffocating culture that revolves around one remarkably ineffective and fundamentally flawed premise. What is that, you might ask? It’s the debilitating notion that the company can solve any problem and do anything – let me repeat, anything – better and cheaper than any outside entity. Translation? The Not Invented Here syndrome is a way of life at Ford.
And what are the ramifications of this oppressively pervasive “NIH” syndrome? Because of its steadfast refusal to work with companies with more knowledge and intellectually accurate property, Ford is lagging behind other automakers. And not by a little bit, either. Ford has missed opportunity after opportunity – especially in the area of electronics and connectivity – because of the quaint and woefully misguided notion that it not only knows better, but it can do it better. And cheaper. The reality? When Ford sets its mind to doing something it usually takes twice as long and costs twice as much. If not more. And this ingrained wrongheadedness has led the company down the primrose path of mediocrity more times than I care to count. (I am absolving the True Believers at Ford, because they know what they're doing and are not a part of the NIH hordes.)
Ford’s problems are not only systemic and part of a resolutely moribund culture; they’re deeply ingrained in the psyche of the company. Translation? A giant Blue Oval of Not Good.
To say that Mr. Hackett’s quest to make a difference in his first 100 days at the Ford Motor Company is Quixotic is the understatement of this and any other year.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
THE AUTOEXTREMIST BRAND IMAGE METER VI: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE CLUELESS.
12 Jun 2017 at 8:52am
Editor-In-Chief's Note: Since last week's column is one of our three biggest of the year in terms of readership, impact (and length), WG and I have decided to leave it up one more week. As predicted, after the debut of the Autoextremist Brand Image Meter VI some car company marketers are smiling this morning, glowing with the knowledge that The Autoextremist confirmed that they indeed have it goin' on, while others are seething because they are absolutely convinced that they have it goin' on and no one - especially Yours Truly - is going to dissuade them from that notion. While others are still wandering around lost in the marketing desert, muttering to themselves that the turnaround in their fortunes "won't be long now!" As I've stated repeatedly, this automotive marketing business is tough, unforgiving and relentless. Hundred-million-dollar marketing campaigns can be left in a smoldering heap by the side of the road because of a bold miscalculation, a flat-out wrong-headed decision, or auto executives egos running amuck. Or, as I like to call it, The Trifecta of Not Good. That last one can be particularly devastating, because as smart as some of these people think they are, their ability to sort through the real from the imaginary sometimes gets lost in translation. Much of this is the result of a completely unrealistic assessment by these executives of their talent and their brand's place in the automotive world. They are so buried in the day-to-day minutiae of it all at their respective companies that they simply don't have the wherewithal to step back and objectively see or understand what's really going on. And to compound that, they don't really like people telling them what to do or that they're wrong either, because after all they're geniuses, remember? Just ask them. I find the insularity at the auto companies to be astonishing. Understandable mind you, but still astonishing. That's really the only adjective that fits. This insularity causes major missteps and blown opportunities left and right. When I see an iconic brand offering so much to work with, with so much historical relevance to bring to bear and yet it is so misguided and mishandled, it is simply unconscionable. Squandering a legacy is unforgivable in my book. I would suggest that the brand marketers that got hammered in our latest Brand Image Meter go back and reread my words carefully, because though painful, half the battle is realizing what you're doing wrong before you can even begin to see your way clear to making things right. As for the rest who fared better I wouldn't get too complacent, because you're only one bone-headed decision away - or a runaway ego unchained - from disaster. And that's the (updated) High-Octane Truth for this week. -PMD
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. As I mentioned at the end of last week’s eighteenth anniversary column, it’s time for our annual Autoextremist Brand Image Meter, which, as hard as it is to believe, is now in its sixth year. This column grades the efforts of hordes of marketers and brand image wranglers at the various car companies who work long and hard, day after day, in order to make their respective brands the Bright Shining Stars in the market.
Some of the people toiling away in this pursuit are actually qualified and bring a certain sense of gravitas to the proceedings, but those executives are admittedly few and far between. Others are unfortunately assigned to the marketing function as part of a woefully misguided corporate effort to “round” executives’ experience resulting in ill-equipped operatives who stumble along wreaking havoc on everything and everyone in their path while attempting to learn the business of marketing by “feel,” which translates into making a bumbling mess of things over the duration of their assignment. That companies persist in this folly instead of recruiting and nurturing marketing talent remains one of the unsolved mysteries of this business. And unfortunately the rest, of course, are flat-out poseurs who inevitably turn up lost in the marketing desert in search of a clue.
That there is such a wide range of talent in the auto marketing ranks is no surprise, because it’s indicative of the general reality for the business as a whole. But this gaping disparity between a few star performers and the rest in the automotive marketing arena can have a devastating affect on a brand’s image, as you’ll see below.
Yes, some of the brands I’ll talk about today are blessed with auto marketers who actually get it and who know what their brands stand for (and almost more important, what they’re not) and the understanding that sometimes it’s better not to screw things up rather than set the world afire with their “I’m a genius, just ask me” brilliance. Other brands mentioned suffer the consequences of marketers who careen around throwing ideas and executions up against the wall to see what sticks, and their respective brand images pay dearly for it.
In this column I grade automotive brands on their fundamental raison d’etre, and of course in turn the people responsible for shaping what those brands stand for are directly or indirectly graded too. And believe me, no matter where these marketers fall on the competence spectrum, many of them believe that they’ve got it goin’ on, even though that isn’t even remotely the case.
Automotive marketing is a very big deal. And expert brand image wrangling is a crucial part of making all of the effort to design and engineer great products worthwhile. Billions of dollars are spent on brand image wrangling by the auto companies each and every year. Why? Because having the “right” brand image is absolutely essential for market success.
As you’ll see in my following commentary when a company does it well, it shows, but if a company misses even by a little, it can be very costly. And if a company’s marketers screw up, the effects can not only be devastating, they can linger for years.
Without further ado then, let’s see who’s doing it right, who’s doing just okay, and who is doing it so wrong that it hurts.
Acura. I’ve been asked repeatedly, is the Acura NSX sports car a fitting halo for the brand? On the one hand, I can say yes, yes, it is. The car is a little porky but overall it’s an excellent effort. But on the other hand, is there really any connection between Acura’s show pony sports car and the rest of the lineup? The answer unfortunately, is not much. Burdened by design mistakes from its recent past and constantly operating on the fringes of the top tier luxury-performance brands, Acura remains an enigma. Does Acura offer good cars and SUVs for the most part? Yes, of course, in fact some of them are truly excellent. But it isn’t enough, because the Acura brand image remains cloudy and unfocused to this day. And to make matters worse, there’s not enough differentiation from Honda’s regular lineup to justify the price. The Bottom Line? Where’s the juice with Acura? Why isn’t the passion that comes shining through in the NSX visible in the rest of the Acura lineup? I am astounded that after all of these years “the best of Honda” doesn’t resonate as the focus of the Acura brand.
Alfa Romeo. That this brand remains “Sergio’s Folly” is undeniable. Despite the media fanboy slobbering that went on after the carefully orchestrated advance drives for the Giulia, the ugly reality for FCA is that the car is s-l-o-w out of the gate. How slow? Well, at the current selling rate the brand isn’t sustainable, that slow. Now what or who Sergio is going to blame this failure on is pure conjecture at this point, but I’m voting on the “sun spot” defense, because he certainly isn’t going to assume responsibility for anything. After all, he hasn’t up until now so why mar a perfect record? But if you listen closely to the Italian PR wattage being generated in Auburn Hills, we should all move on from worrying about the Giulia, because – hallefrickinluja! - the new Stelvio SUV will project Alfa Romeo to the glorious heights Marchionne has been promising for oh, going on eight years now. As if. Alfa Romeo remains a fringe brand with a wonderful history that was hijacked by carpetbagging mercenaries with visions of fantastic profits dancing in their heads. No brand can live up to that pressure, especially one whose historic peak was five decades ago. Suffice to say I’ve seen this movie before, and it never ends well.
Aston Martin. The decision was taken to make Aston Martin even more of a luxury brand of late, which means besides cars there will be Aston Martin luxury boutiques, luxury yachts and well, luxury everything. CEO Andy Palmer knows that Aston Martin, as an independent luxury automobile manufacturer, can just barely survive in its present guise, which is also why Aston is introducing the DBX super luxury SUV in 2018. Aston desperately needs more of a limited volume play in the market and the DBX is the ticket, Palmer figures. He’s probably right. But here’s the thing, as long as Aston Martin continues to make some of the most stunningly beautiful cars on the road, machines that unquestionably live up to the legacy of the brand, it will be fine.
Audi. Audi seems to be chugging along with its brand mojo intact, despite the stain of the VW Group’s Diesel fiasco. Now fully ensconced in the top tier of mainstream luxury brands along with BMW and Mercedes-Benz here in the U.S., Audi continues to do what they do. Does it all work? For the most part, yes. Audi has even polished its own version of the classic German automotive arrogance to a new sheen, which is not unexpected, but that translates into higher prices, higher doses of attitude and a lingering feeling that the brand, though still hot, is headed for a cooling. The Marketing Meisters at Audi are still on course, except for when they take themselves much too seriously and allow their “holier than thou” attitude to creep into their advertising, which results in smarmy and annoying work. A B+. For now.
Bentley. Some people thought that with the arrival of the Bentayga SUV, Bentley would suffer immeasurable image damage, but instead the brand has been made even stronger. This is a classic example of image stewards for a brand displaying the kind of focused consistency – combined with savvy product decisions – needed to forge one of the most desirable luxury brands in the business.
BMW. The ubiquitous German brand, which once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away created its destiny with the funky little 2002, has shockingly become the Chevy of German luxury brands, the result of leadership teams over the years pushing the brand into every segment – both real and imagined – that seemed to make sense. This quest to be in every garage in every toney community in America has delivered vast profits for the propeller brigade, but it has gutted its brand integrity. Yes, they still crank out “M” versions to remind everyone of what they used to be, but they’re not fooling anyone anymore. BMW’s brand image is lost in a choking haze of profitability over integrity, and it’s not likely to find its way back anytime soon.
Buick. No brand wranglers pat themselves on the back more than those toiling away at Buick (well, not more than Chevrolet, but I’ll get to that in a minute). They will be the first to tell you that they have it so goin’ on that it’s a wonder they have to drive into work anymore. Instead, they should be able to float in to work riding the platitudes and accumulated “attaboys” that dominate their thought balloons. Contrary to those thoughts, and contrary to GM’s upper management who actually do believe that Buick really does have it goin’ on, the so-called marketers have dumbed down Buick only to occupy star status in Payment Land. As in “I can’t believe I get this much faux luxury for this little money!” GM Design has managed, by presenting some compelling concepts over the last few years, to imagine a Buick that simply doesn’t exist. Buick is yet another GM brand that exists for the edification of the Chinese market. Nothing more, nothing less.
Cadillac. Divisional honcho Johan de Nysschen has made no bones about the fact that he is on a mission to remake Cadillac in Audi’s image, a state of mind that he’s intimately familiar with, given that he was greatly responsible for Audi’s rise in this market. The problem is that Cadillac isn’t Audi, which - if some of the operatives involved at Cadillac would step away from the program long enough would realize - is a very good thing and something to be grateful for. Cadillac has a historical legacy unmatched by few automotive brands in the world, but many of de Nysschen’s initiatives are designed to suppress that fact, or ignore it all together. This is a giant wreath and crest of Not Good. Look at Cadillac’s lineup today - the ATS, the CTS, the XT5, the CT6 and the Escalade. (I left the XTS out intentionally.) Which one of these products has the can’t-mistake-it-for-anything-else street cred worthy of the brand? A hint: It’s the only one with a name. The XT5 is riding the SUV/Crossover craze somewhat successfully, but the rest? Damn-near dead in the water. (What about the CT6 you say? It’s technically impressive but uninspired and underwhelming.) Cadillac is another one of GM’s brands that has more going for it in China than anywhere else, and even though that’s an inevitable industry reality, the fact that this brand is squandering its legacy here is unconscionable. As an enthusiast, the superb Cadillac “V” cars are noteworthy and highly desirable, but they’re wasted in Cadillac showrooms because they have no context there, despite all of the money GM is pissing away on Cadillac’s so-called racing program, which is another foray into the Audi-ness of it all that isn’t working. (Now, take those “V” cars and remake them into Corvette coupes and sedans as part of the new Corvette Performance Division, and you’d have something, but that’s another column.) There are so many things wrong with Cadillac right now that I don’t know where to begin. I have one question: How can a brand that has displayed the industry's most compelling concept cars of the last decade – with equally compelling names, by the way – stumble along with a bunch of cars in the market that have nothing going for them? I’m sure Cadillac will heel to de Nysschen’s push into AudiLand as long as he’s there, but it’s not the right path. In fact it’s not even close. What a waste.
Chevrolet. No marketers have done less with more than the people charged with nurturing one of the most iconic American brands of all time. Think about that for a moment. These stumblebums have taken a larger-than-life brand that has thrived over the years with some of the most heroic, memorable car advertising campaigns of all time, and turned it into a sick version of marketing “small ball.” Chevrolet’s once-proud image has been reduced to a series of glorified retail spots that insult our intelligence and annoy with equal aplomb. Throw in the insipid “most rewarded” angle and it’s a marketing cocktail that absolutely no one is interested in except the so-called “marketers” down at the Silver Silos, who are absolutely convinced that they have it goin’ on. This just in: They don’t. We have been inundated of late by stories by our resident local media homers touting how wonderful Mary Barra is, how smart, how enlightened, how visionary and the usual blah-blah-blah. That’s all well and good and only somewhat deserved, but as long as she – and “Dan I Am” Ammann – continue to ignore the blatant mediocrity on constant display by GM’s so-called marketing troops, I will give them a big fat “F.” And as bad as that grade is, that’s more than Chevrolet’s brand image merits, unfortunately.
Chrysler. The “C” of FCA is a one-trick pony now as defined by the Chrysler Pacifica. The goodness of the Chrysler minivan brand image goes only so far, meaning the Pacifica is part of the competitive set of minivans to consider if one is interested in those particular vehicles. Not much to go on, is it?
Corvette. Once upon a time, the Corvette was the quintessential definition of a “halo” vehicle for Chevrolet. The notion that “there’s a little bit of Corvette in every Chevrolet” was used to great effect back in the day. Not so much today. Despite the fact that the Corvette is one of the best high-performance cars in the world, with an impeccable and accomplished record in racing, GM – and Chevrolet – really doesn’t do much with it. Oh sure, the enthusiast press and enthusiasts in general are well versed in the goodness of the Corvette, but you’d barely notice it exists at GM. It’s very strange in fact. It’s as if they’re afraid to talk about it too much or admit that it represents the very best thinking of GM’s True Believers. Why? Well, why ask why? It has been like this for the Corvette for decades. Despite this cloud of negativity, the Corvette name and image shine through. In fact it shares the top tier in our AE Brand Image Meter with five other brands. I am not kidding when I say that I would form a completely new GM Performance Division with the Corvette as the foundation. As long as Chevrolet marketers continue to squander the image of an American icon, why associate the Corvette with that relentlessly clueless marketing mediocrity? As I suggested five years ago I would take the Cadillac “V” cars and remake them as Corvette models, and I would add the outstanding Camaro into the mix too. If Mary Barra wants to be truly “visionary” she could start by shaking up GM’s “we’ve always done it this way” mentality and let GM’s exceptional performance cars have an arena that they can call their own.
Dodge. Muscle cars and cop cars are this brand’s thing. Is that enough to go on? Will Dodge survive once Sergio and his espresso-swilling minions finally find a dupe, err, I mean a buyer so that they can cash out for good? With now-ancient chassis underpinnings and a ton of cash needed for a completely new vehicle architecture, I wouldn’t bet on it. In the meantime Dodge is the brand for people who don’t want to live in today’s world. Can’t say I blame them, but the harsh reality is that the life expectancy of this circus is short.
Fiat. A complete waste of time, no matter what the fanboys in the media say about the 124 Spider. Notice how Marchionne isn’t saying much about Fiat anymore? Remember when he was promising dealers the brand would be the stepping stone to untold riches once they started selling Alfa Romeos too? Fiat is the forgotten Italian brand that had its day in this market decades ago, that is until people started discovering that there were small cars out there that were light years better in terms of quality, reliability, desirability and overall value. Funny how nothing has changed. There are a lot of pretty smart dealers out there talking to themselves right now about how they could let Marchionne – a known carpetbagging mercenary – take them to the cleaners with the complete fiasco known as Fiat. Oh well. Brand image? Fiat is dead to me. And everyone else too, apparently.
Ferrari. The brand with the impeccable legacy and unequaled image, at least for the most part, seems to find a never-ending supply of moneyed fanboys and girls to seduce. That the true Ferrari enthusiasts are drifting off to other shiny automotive objects, or drifting off of this Mortal Coil permanently, is not lost on Ferrari management. Unfortunately for the proud, prancing horse brand and the enthusiasts who desire it, the term “management” means that the dreaded Marchionne is now in charge, which lends a certain unmistakable foreboding to the proceedings. What does it all mean? More tchotchkes, more Ferrari “Worlds” and ominously, much more volume, as in almost 50 percent more volume. This is, in case you forgot, what flat-out greed looks like in the car business. I would have put Ferrari at the top of the AE Brand Image Meter along with the other select few, but as long as Marchionne is involved the chances of this brand being screwed up are better than 50-50. So the Ferrari brand is still red hot, at least for now, but how long that lasts remains to be seen.
Ford. Sad to say, but Ford is another iconic American brand that has lost its way. Except for the F-150 pickup - which boasts an image that is simply unimpeachable, and when considered on its own ascends to the top tier of the AE Brand Image Meter, and except for its performance cars, including the evergreen Mustang - Ford seems to be wallowing in abject mediocrity. Why? For one thing Ford design is decidedly lackluster (except for the two aforementioned star vehicles and the Ford GT) and forgettable. If I said that Ford design suffers from being too derivative, that would be kind. The ugly reality is that Ford models don’t look fresh and new, they just look old and tired, which is simply inexcusable. And Ford marketing has taken a decided turn toward the forgettable, too, which is equally inexcusable. Except for the F-150 work, which is still outstanding and befitting of the nameplate, the Ford advertising work is comprised of a bunch of scattershot executions that do not add up to a cohesive whole. Bill Ford’s insistence that the Ford legacy of putting America on wheels will continue isn’t nearly enough. In fact that notion counts for exactly nothing and is flat-out obsolete in the Silicon Valley-tinged world we live in today. Here are a few questions for the marketing types at Ford that should be answered immediately: What is Ford's compelling reason for being? And what differentiates it from the other brands out there? And why should we care?
Genesis. A year ago I was convinced that Hyundai was playing it right with its new Genesis luxury brand, and I still think the brand has huge potential. But not with just two cars that appear to be too close together to the average consumer, and not with the limited advertising and marketing Hyundai has undertaken for this new brand. I get the efficacy of avoiding the overpromise, underdeliver train wreck that so many manufacturers willingly embrace, but really, this is the best they can do in terms of marketing? Genesis is still a very new brand. But it’s destined to be a Lost Brand without more product and better marketing.
GMC. This brand just keeps going on, in some cases even defying rational thinking. Everyone knows that GMC vehicles are massaged versions of Chevrolet models, but for some that’s clearly more than enough. Granted, the exterior and interior designers at GM Design assigned to work on GMC have made the most of what they’ve been given, but even that doesn’t explain the brand’s consistent success in the market. And it’s certainly not the advertising and marketing either, lest GMC marketers start patting each other on their backs, because that stuff is eminently forgettable, when it’s not annoying. (The new "Like A Pro" campaign? It's visually better, but I'm not so enamored with the words. I need to spend some more time with it, but right now it seems a little awkward and forced.) I chalk up GMC's success to a very clear-cut marketing reality: For consumers GMC isn’t a Chevy, which apparently counts for a lot. And it’s not a Cadillac, either, which in their minds counts for even more, not being showy types and all. A solid brand, which in this chaotic marketing world is really saying something.
Honda. The brand that has such a rich legacy seems to be on the rebound with consumers, which is noteworthy. Honda is touting that it is getting back to its roots, which company operatives are insisting is why things are on the upswing for the brand, but I’m not going to go along with that assessment completely. I think that is true, but only intermittently. In fact, Honda Design has taken a giant step backwards with the new Civic, which, though an excellent car, looks so uncomfortable in its own skin that you can almost hear them squeal “help me!” as they drive by. If Honda insists that they have their mojo back I’m going to at least give them points for the thought, and maybe even the benefit of the doubt. But I’m not buying into the “it’s a new day at Honda” mantra just yet. Honda enjoys a positive brand image for some very good reasons. That’s still the case, but it's still a giant "we'll see" proposition.
Hyundai. Such a once-promising brand, what the hell happened? Was it the constant cries of “we got it goin’ on!” which were part of the rote speech at every press conference that everyone grew tired of five years ago? Was it the Too Many Models Syndrome, which resulted in a confusing showroom filled with too many cars that blended together and that no one wanted? In fact it was all of the above, and more. The reality is that there’s no use telling Korean auto executives what to do. They know absolutely everything there is to know about absolutely everything, and if, as an American car executive in their employ you don’t concur, you are jettisoned in favor of someone who will. Hyundai has been careening around like this for years, and there’s no relief in sight. The other major problem that the powers that be at Hyundai would never admit to is that Kia and Hyundai are interchangeable in most consumers’ minds. And now that Hyundai is pushing its Genesis division that problem is even more pronounced. Brand image? Ugh. Hyundai showrooms are where consumers go to get financed, and get a deal. And that’s all.
Infiniti. Quite simply Nissan’s luxury (sort of) brand has its following, a core group of consumers who, for some reason, can’t be bothered with other Japanese brands, let alone with the go-to German luxury brands. Normally you would call Infiniti the “marching to a different drummer” brand but that would be attaching too much gravitas to it. No, it’s a cynical play by Nissan to grab their share of a market that they believe they have just as much right to as any other manufacturer. Except everything about Infiniti seems like Nissan operatives are phoning it in, and devoid of a single original thought. I consider Infiniti a “ghost” brand, one that’s invisible except for the select few who have been issued the special glasses from the factory so that they can appreciate the inherent goodness of the brand. Brand Image? A well-intentioned afterthought.
Jaguar. Who would have thought that Jaguar could be on such a roll? But with a brace of excellent vehicles, including the F-Pace SUV, which is a runaway hit, and an image that has been well defined and polished to a high gloss, this brand definitely has it going on.
Jeep. This American icon is another brand that occupies the top spot in the AE Brand Image Meter. It is truly amazing – and I hate that overused word – but that’s the only explanation for this brand to have survived upheaval after upheaval and multiple stewards, and still emerged intact and stronger over time. It’s no secret that this brand, with the impeccable credentials and unrivaled imagery attached to it, has benefited from some superb image wrangling too. Jeep is the sole focus of Sergio Marchionne’s vision for untold riches when The Giant Payoff – aka when FCA parts the company out – occurs. It’s the only sure thing that he has, in fact. What’s it worth? Who knows? $10 - $12 billion with a capital “B” maybe? (Remember, Sergio and his Fiat heir overlords only paid $6 Billion for Chrysler, all in.) That could be, but there are storm clouds gathering for Jeep too. FCA has pushed out more Jeeps with questionable quality – and pushed more subprime financing to pump sales – than at any point in the brand’s history. Marchionne has pumped up Jeep’s volume to make it even more attractive to interested suitors, except that now that the market slowdown is accelerating, Jeep sales seem to be cooling at an accelerated rate too. Jeep is still at the top tier in the AE brand Image Meter, but beyond that anything can happen to derail Sergio’s grandiose plans for the iconic American brand.
Kia. As I mentioned above, Hyundai’s foray into the luxury arena spells trouble for its Hyundai and Kia brands. Before Genesis there was at least an attempt at differentiation between Kia and Hyundai, with Kia allegedly skewing younger. But now? Consumers don’t care how Korean auto executives parse their brands because Kia and Hyundai both fall into that subset of “deal” brands in the American market. The Korean auto executives with genuine decision-making power in this situation are too arrogant and shortsighted to see that having two brands stepping all over each other in the American market isn’t going to work. Brand image? Nonexistent, unless looking for a deal qualifies as such.
Lamborghini. This exotic, high-performance Italian supercar brand is the one for knowledgeable enthusiasts who don’t worship at the altar of the Prancing Horse. Since the VW Group took over, everything about Lamborghini has been elevated, from the products to the brand image itself. In ancient times, the name Lamborghini wouldn’t have been uttered in the same breath as Ferrari. Now? There are plenty of enthusiasts out there who consider Lamborghini to be the most desirable exotic Italian sports car.
Land Rover. That these super luxury crossovers and SUVs have found such favor in the suburban jungles across America is still a little bit hard to believe. It wasn’t too long ago that Land Rovers were something to appreciate but not drive, because they were too problematic for most people to deal with. Now, bristling with cachet and boasting sumptuous interiors, Land Rover has become one of the touchstones of affluent suburbia, and another brand at the top tier of the AE Brand Image Meter.
Lexus. Toyota’s luxury brand is going all-out to reinvent itself as something more than the “excellent service and customer care” brand. That’s all well and good, and maybe Akio Toyoda’s drive to make Lexus into a high-performance brand will succeed, but even if it doesn’t there are plenty of people who like Lexus just the way it used to be and still is. Impeccable customer service still resonates.
Lincoln. Still a work in progress, the Ford luxury brand can point to a lot of positives since it almost got axed in Alan Mulally’s “One Ford” era. But even though Lincoln has come a long way in just four years, there are still some glaring things about the brand that are irksome. First of all, when the revised MKZ came out a year ago featuring the new “Continental-esque” front end before the Continental came out, it was a blown opportunity. I’m well aware of the dictates of product cadence, but that one decision spoiled the impact of the Continental’s debut. And as well received as the Continental has been, Ford’s current weakness in design shows in the back end of the car, which is completely uninspired and forgettable, and decidedly unworthy of the Continental name. While I’m at it, there are negatives about the new Navigator SUV design, too, which is a mishmash of at least three other luxury SUVs. I was expected something more. Much more. And the advertising? Well, there's no doubt that some of Lincoln's advertising has been a cut above Cadillac's, especially when it stayed in the pure image play arena, as with the Annie Leibovitz photography campaign. But they've stayed with Matthew McConaughey far too long, which is annoying. Why not use him as a brand ambassador and keep him out of the advertising? But still, those problems aside, at least Lincoln has a name with historical relevance in Continental, one that it embraces and nurtures to great effect. That’s more than can be said for Cadillac, which clings to its Audi-esque naming regimen that resonates with exactly no one.
Lotus. Talk about your quintessential “marching to a different drummer” car company, Lotus is that and more. Colin Chapman, who rightfully sits among the greats of automotive history, was the brilliant innovator whose designs for Lotus racing and street cars remain legendary to this day. The fact that Lotus still exists with its founder’s name on it is one of the miracles of the modern automotive age, as its tumultuous history can attest, but there have always been True Believers associated with the brand it seems and they have managed to keep the flame alive through some very lean times. Lotus cars aren’t for everyone, thank goodness, and it’s easy to see why people seriously looking at the Porsche 718 Cayman don’t even give the Evora even a sideways glance. But that’s okay and probably as it should be, because Lotus has always appealed to iconoclast enthusiasts, those who march to a different drummer themselves. Now that Lotus has a fresh infusion of deep-pocketed investors from China, I believe the future of the brand is secure. And speaking of that brand, it has a new glow and new hope.
Maserati. This luxury performance machine is the attractive Italian sports car brand name with a historical legacy that repeatedly suffers in comparison to the rest of the competition. Does Maserati have attractive cars? Yes, somewhat, but the brand is not top of mind. In other words Maserati exists, but in a galaxy far, far away from the real luxury-performance retail action. Will the brand be able to live up to Marchionne’s typically over-aggressive projections? Not a chance. The AE Brand Image Meter? A glimpse of warmth, but only for those who still give a shit.
Mazda. Even though Mazda builds some notably outstanding cars, the brand always seems to be scrambling for respectability. Will it ever be more than it is right now, the scrappy purveyor of interesting cars if you would just take the time to look, and a media fanboy favorite? I seriously doubt it. But now that it’s about to pirouette off a cliff in its pursuit of elevated legitimacy, what are the Mazda overlords thinking? Sometimes big league brand image wrangling involves knowing what the brand isn’t. If you’re into the brand, it’s hot. For most of the rest of the automotive world it’s - did you see the Warriors game last night?
McLaren. This exotic English sports car micro-manufacturer keeps pouring on the credibility by building formidable high-performance machines that supersede the one before. And even though Ferrari may dismiss McLaren as a legitimate threat to its perpetual dominance of the hyper-exotic car market, the British supercar maker boasting the legacy of one of racing’s true legends keeps making serious inroads into Ferrari’s turf. I wouldn’t bet against McLaren, because the entire organization is focused on delivering excellence. And they don’t have a Marchionne to deal with, which is even more of an advantage.
Mercedes-Benz. As I’ve said countless times before, when Mercedes is “on” – see the magnificent new S-Class Coupe and the Mercedes-AMG GT, for instance – they build absolutely glorious machines that live up to one of the great automotive legacies in the world. When they’re off, well, they can stink up the joint like no other. Part of the problem is the fact that Daimler is forced to stretch out its model lineup because it’s trying to fight a brutally competitive auto world without the resources of the other auto manufacturer conglomerates. But the majority of the problem lies in previous piss-poor marketing and advertising strategies that have deeply damaged the brand. The Mercedes-Benz brand is in perpetual turmoil, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
Mini. The brand that was initially successful beyond all expectations has now fallen to earth with a thud. The powers that be at Mini have learned a very painful lesson, and that is that not every niche product idea they come up with is brilliant. I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow for most car executives, especially since they’re constantly reminded of their brilliance by hordes of bootlicking minions looking for their next promotion, but for Mini executives it had to be a humiliating blow. Mini exists in its own little world, which seems to be shrinking by the day.
Nissan. This company has slowly but surely become a mainstream force in the U.S. market despite flying almost completely under the radar. And I can’t for the life of me understand why. Is it great products? No. In fact they’re mediocre and for the most part, hideous to look at. I mean, let’s face it, Nissan is building some seriously ugly looking vehicles. Is it brilliant marketing? Are you kidding? Nissan marketing is a dismal exercise in futility, and that’s on a good day. So what is it, exactly? The only rational reason – and I am paraphrasing a hoary adage by H. L. Mencken here – is that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. As in, mediocrity, when it comes to automobiles, is bliss for most consumers, because at the end of the day too many of them don’t understand the difference and couldn't be bothered to care. Confounding and tragic, but there you have it. And despite Carlos Ghosn’s promises of global dominance, nothing has changed to alter my assessment. (Can’t auto CEOs just be content with doing well without veering into talk about dominating the market? Ha! What was I thinking?) For those who revel in abject mediocrity, Nissan is just the ticket.
Porsche. No automotive company is better at executing a vision for its brand and staying relentlessly focused to the task at hand than Porsche. The company’s mission is to build the most enticing enthusiast machines they can muster, and in the process of doing so it has made Porsche the most desirable automotive brand in the world and one of the top performing brands on the AE Brand Image Meter. Every time I think Porsche has lost it with a new model, they just keep digging deep to reestablish the brand. Thankfully, even Porsche’s savvy marketing operatives are acutely aware that this roll won’t last indefinitely without consistent efforts at shoring up the brand’s legacy. At times arrogant as it goes about marketing its brilliant array of vehicles, Porsche nonetheless delivers on its brand promise repeatedly and with unwavering consistency. The powers that be at the company know that the profitability from selling SUVs is a blessing, and that it gives Porsche the luxury to create ever more desirable sports cars and compete in major league races around the world. But it comes with a heavy cost too. And Porsche operatives understand that they have to fight and claw to maintain their grip on the soul of the company. At least Porsche understands the task at hand. That’s more than most other companies can muster.
Ram Trucks. As I've said repeatedly, crafting a brand image is one of the most challenging tasks in this business. The True Believers out in Auburn Hills know trucks, and they're building a first-class pickup truck. But there's more to it than that. Not only are they executing their trucks almost flawlessly in terms of design, engineering and features, they've managed to hit it out of the park when it comes to image wrangling. It doesn’t hurt that FCA marketers are putting more cash on the hood than a down payment on a small house, but who’s counting? The only question remaining is which manufacturer will scarf up this brand when Sergio has his fire sale.
Rolls Royce. Nothing new here. Old School before Old School was even remotely cool again, Rolls Royce is still firmly planted in its own little brand world – especially since its rejuvenation due to BMW ownership and the debut of the iconic Phantom followed by the Ghost, the majestic Wraith and the seductive Dawn. And what a wonderful, splendiferous world it is. The Rolls-Royce brand Image is impeccable and smokin’ hot, in a sexy-flirty Helen Mirren kind of way.
Subaru. The most successful brand that no one thinks about (except for its rabid owners), Subaru has attracted loyal followers by emphasizing function over fantasy, and detailed execution over smoke-and-mirror gimmickry. More important, unlike some other automotive entities we know, Subaru marketers understand what the brand is and what it isn’t, and because of this and its focused consistency, it has been rewarded with intense brand loyalty. Kudos to the Subaru marketers, because they clearly understand who its customers are and what the brand means to people. And this is no small feat, which is why Subaru has ascended to the top tier on the AE Brand Image Meter.
Tesla. Nothing new here, either. Blue-sky thinking, old-time religion, and enough smoke and mirrors to last this industry a frickin’ lifetime, Elon Musk is a huge success, dammit, and don’t you dare forget it. Tesla is the car built for politicians in Washington and Northern California, and EcoSwells needing even more validation for who they think they are. Remarkably enough, Tesla is still riding a generously positive wave, even though it doesn’t make any money to speak of, thanks to the denizens of Wall Street who have gleefully written off the domestic automobile industry as an expendable part of this nation’s past. To the green intelligentsia, Tesla is still The White-Hot Future. For the rest of us, well, it’s a great deal less.
Toyota. Toyota is back with a renewed sense that it can do whatever it wants whenever it wants to. Why? It is armed with the richest war chest in this business by far (it dwarfs the other top companies combined), which allows the company the wherewithal to pursue anything it wants to do, even though it is whining about the recent hit it has taken to its profits. Toyota’s resilience and success in the market are proof positive that there are legions of Toyota buyers out there who relish the opportunity to own a blandtastic appliance that blends into the woodwork, no matter how much Akio Toyoda tries to juice things up. For Toyota loyalists the brand is a white-hot bowl of piping hot oatmeal. For everyone else it’s what they used to drive before they drifted off to Honda, Hyundai, Kia or other automotive parts unknown.
Volvo. This car company has juiced its product focus to such an extent that it has become a force to be reckoned with again. Volvo used to be the brand for people who questioned why they even bothered to own a car in the first place. Not any more. Now, Volvo is the beautifully executed smart choice.
VW. After the serious financial hit and image headache from the Diesel cheating scandal, the VW Group and the VW brand is on the rebound. Despite having to shell out billions to satisfy the legal requirements of the settlements with the various entities due piles of cold hard cash, VW is still generating serious profits, almost shockingly so, in fact. In the U.S. the VW brand never really suffered permanent damage to its image because Diesel loyalists loved their cars and still do. It’s easy to see why people love the VW brand because it provides an interesting alternative to the American, Japanese and Korean brands, while adhering to the basic values of overall efficiency with a fun-to-drive component that still resonates with consumers. It doesn’t hurt that VW offers two of the best enthusiast cars in the market in the GTI and the R, either. And it’s not going to hurt at all when VW dealers start getting the new Atlas SUV in stock, which is going to fly off of the lots like free beer. The VW brand is alive and well. Hopefully, now that the company has been severely chastened, it will seize this golden opportunity to do even better.
As I’ve said previously, if this stuff were easy, everyone would have 30 percent market share and the streets in auto centers around the world would be paved with platinum. And when you listen to CEOs like Carlos and Sergio long enough, you get the idea that is exactly what they expect. But this just in: It doesn’t work that way, and when you have multiple manufacturers clamoring for the same slice of the pie and making the same sort of promises, something has to give, which means brand image becomes even more crucial.
Automakers who are in search of a brand image and understand the power that comes with having a solid one garner the tiniest bit of slack from me, because at least they know what they want and where they need to go. But the automakers that have a brand image and don’t have the first clue as to what to do with it, or worse - have squandered a great brand legacy because of cluelessness, ineptitude, or both - draw zero sympathy from me.
It’s duly noted that the companies that are overflowing with True Believers and that focus every waking moment on the integrity and the fundamental desirability of the product are doing very well right now in the brand image department, and they will continue to do so. (There are exceptions, of course, as inept marketing has a tendency to overwhelm great products. See the aforementioned Chevrolet example.)
The rest? Well, for them flailing and floundering about seems to be standard operating procedure, if not a full-time career trajectory. And living in a world of reduced expectations is oddly comforting to them.
Brand image is a fleeting thing, except for those brand marketers that understand how they got it, what it took to get it to that point, and what it will take to keep it.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
STILL INCENDIARY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS.
30 May 2017 at 12:46pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Longtime readers have heard this story before, so I’m not going to regurgitate all of it. How I grew up in a serious car family rooted in the heyday of Detroit, with a special emphasis on anything and everything to do with GM; how I hammered away in my automotive advertising/marketing career for over two decades, trying to make sense and make a difference in an environment - and a town - that was rapidly descending into a giant sinkhole of irrelevance; how I came up with the idea for a car magazine called “Autoextremist” in 1986 that wouldn’t have any advertising so we could say exactly what needed to be said about the cars and the business of designing, engineering, building and marketing cars; and how I had to shelve that idea because I was still toiling away in my ad career. And how, disgusted with what car advertising had become – both with the clients and ad agency side of the equation – and tired of watching “Detroit” wallow in its own serial incompetence, I resurrected that car magazine idea thirteen years later and honed and polished it for the Internet.
The result? Autoextremist.com debuted on June 1, 1999, as a weekly Internet magazine featuring my perspectives, insights and commentaries on all things automotive: specifically the people, the products, the marketing, and all of the good, the bad and the ugly that entailed.
Working under a pseudonym while my ad career was winding down, my “Rants” in Autoextremist.com blew the lid off of the oppressively staid auto business as practiced around these parts – as well as the rote press release regurgitation that passed for news coverage back then – and changed the way the business was covered, talked about and assessed.
My first two columns – “White Boy Culture,” which excoriated what the Detroit mindset had become and why it was contributing to the industry’s descent into madness; and “The Sad Saga of Saturn,” which blew the lid off of the fiefdoms and the egomaniacal game playing that dominated GM’s rigidly obsolete culture and which contributed to the demise of the once-promising Saturn division – set the tone for what was to follow.
As I said in my book The United State of Toyota, Autoextremist wasn’t for everybody and needless to say, it wasn’t for the faint of heart: "From Day One, the real essence of Autoextremist.com was the fact that I said what others were merely thinking, or would only discuss in 'deep background' and in 'off-the-record' conversations. It was never a 'touchy-feely' publication that coddled its readers and genuflected at the feet of the car companies. There's plenty of pabulum in this world. And if becoming a lifetime member of the 'Milquetoast & Crumpets Afternoon Tea & Automobile Society,' while sitting around the fire chatting about Renault Dauphines floats your boat, there are plenty of other automobile publications out there to satisfy your primordial need for blandness. But that's not Autoextremist.”
I continued: “Born out of a defiance and frustration with the status quo that I believed was stifling creativity and squeezing the very life out of the automobile business - particularly as practiced here in the Motor City - and then fueled by my passion and vision for how great the business could become again and what was necessary in order for it to get there, Autoextremist.com was not only a labor of love for me personally - it became an influential force to be reckoned with in this industry with an impact far beyond my most vivid imagination."
And today, on the eighteenth anniversary of this publication, I am immensely proud of Autoextremist.com and what we’ve accomplished with it. And I’m even more proud to say that, despite countless imitators, Autoextremist.com is still the force to be reckoned with and still the destination for the kind of commentary and insight about this business that simply can’t be found anywhere else.
And I’m also proud to say that Autoextremist.com is still The Incendiary Voice in this business. We are constantly regaled with stories from deep within the car companies about how my “Rants” and “On The Table” items reverberate through the hallowed executive halls like wildfire, and that there’s a race by PR minions to see what we’ve posted before the executives within these companies see it, so that some sort of spin can be initiated. Except that there’s no amount of “spin” that can blunt the impact of The Bare-Knuckled, Unvarnished, High-Octane Truth.
The common refrain we hear is, “It’s scary. It’s like he’s right here with us and he knows what we’re thinking before we even think it.” Or something similar to that. Much gnashing of teeth and stomping of feet usually ensues, as well. The reason for this is that I have an uncanny knack for knowing the automotive mindset cold, inside and out. I know what these executives are thinking and how they go about coming to the conclusions they do, even before they do, which allows me to expose the poseurs, the spineless weasels, the unmitigated hacks and, of course, the carpetbagging mercenaries. I also have a legendarily sensitive Bullshit Detector, which comes in handy each and every day.
My columns are not only regularly quoted from in meetings; my perspectives affect corporate PR strategies and the direction of entire marketing/advertising campaigns. I would be lying if I said all of this isn’t immensely gratifying, because it is. When we started this publication one of my stated goals was to “influence the influencers” - whether it be the auto executives themselves, or the journalists covering them. And we’ve exceeded that goal.
But that doesn’t mean I’m satisfied, or ready to call a truce with the industry and shuffle off into GoAlongToGetAlongLand to write about the calming effect of bunny rabbits and rainbows and make wind chimes in my spare time. It’s funny, but when I finally put my real name on the byline of Autoextremist.com on September 21, 1999, I heard a lot of antagonistic comments implying that I’d get bored with it all soon enough, and once that happened the industry could get back to its regularly scheduled programming.
After eighteen years I can safely say that isn’t going to happen. I still have just as much fire for what this business should be as I ever did (just ask WG), and I don’t plan on phoning it in anytime soon.
I start my week at 3:00 a.m. each Monday morning and I immerse myself in this business the rest of the time because I am passionate about what I do. The writing is almost all consuming, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. In order to bring it every week like I do, you have to love it. And I do.
So Autoextremist lives on. As a matter of fact next week - our 900th issue (gulp) – one of our most eagerly anticipated columns of the year is on deck. The Autoextremist Brand Image Meter, or as we refer to it internally, “The One That Has Them Quaking In Their Boots,” is the one column that’s poured over even more feverishly than the rest, if that’s possible. Some execs will be gloating, others will be defensive and cranky, and the rest will be polishing their resumes.
As it should be.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth, eighteen years on.
THE SWIRLING MAELSTROM OVERWHELMS FORD.
22 May 2017 at 10:00am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. For Mark Fields, the end came swiftly. Just three years into his tenure as CEO of the Ford Motor Company he’s out, replaced by 62-year-old Jim Hackett, who was brought into the company a year ago after a lengthy career at Steelcase to run its “Smart Mobility” division, which was supposed to be a center of innovation but so far has paid zero dividends.
Up until then Hackett’s biggest claim to fame – at least around these parts – was that, in an interim role as athletic director at the University of Michigan, he went out and recruited Jim Harbaugh, so there’s that. Hackett seems to have huge favor with Bill Ford and the Ford board of directors, but beyond that, this is a giant ”we’ll see” by any measure.
Fields, an exceedingly smart and capable Ford veteran of 28 years, had an impossible task in following in the footsteps of Alan Mulally. How difficult a task was it? It would be like whoever is going to follow Bill Belichick at the New England Patriots. Mulally was so revered in Dearborn that Bill Ford retained his counsel long after he left the company.
But make no mistake: Fields was responsible for some of the most profitable years in the company’s history. Fueled by the sales juggernaut that is the Ford F-150 and armed with an array of hot-selling crossovers and SUVs, Ford churned out huge profits. But alas, that wasn’t enough for Fields.
Why? Because of the coming autonomous/ride sharing/electric revolution that is swallowing Detroit whole. The Ford Motor Company could feel the icy chill of the swirling winds blowing in from the West Coast, and like GM, started to investigate getting a foothold in Silicon Valley. In fact Bill Ford made regular trips out to The New Center of the Universe, scouring the landscape for ideas, and he spurred Fields on to step up Ford’s involvement “out there.” Which he did, with vigorous urgency.
But - and there are always giant “buts” in anything to do with Silicon Valley - they play a different game out there. Investors and digital speculators throw vast amounts of money around betting on the come, what could happen and what might happen if everything goes well, and that is totally anathema to the Detroit mindset. When Detroit throws money around returns are expected – and soon – because that’s just the way the business rolls and has rolled for more than 100 years.
So there Fields was, making deals with digital and data companies, and throwing massive amounts of dough around in Silicon Valley with results expected, well, sometime down the road. Meanwhile, the giant slowdown for the auto business had started, and even though Ford was still cranking out cars and trucks and racking up big-time sales numbers, signs were ominous that the company was losing traction in the market, and, on top of that, out billions of dollars on new technology that would be neither here nor there anytime soon.
To complicate matters exponentially, since Fields had taken over from Mulally, Ford stock had fallen 40 percent, which, by any measure, was disastrous. This didn’t make the Ford family or the board of directors happy in the least. And lest we forget, Ford is very much a family owned and run company, and if they’re not happy, someone will be assigned blame, and pay dearly.
Now, let’s be clear here, I chalk up half that percentage drop in Ford stock to Wall Street, which makes no bones about the fact that they absolutely despise Detroit and the U.S. auto industry with an unwavering passion, so much so that Wall Street is singularly responsible for running up Tesla stock to such ridiculous heights that even St. Elon himself suggested last week that it was absurd. (As I commented on twitter: “Thanks, Elon, now shut up.”)
This gets right to the heart of the matter here for Fields, for Ford and for Detroit itself. Despite the collective “Detroit” being a mainstay of the industrial fabric of this country and responsible for thousands of jobs, while providing mobility for every purse and purpose, Wall Street and to a larger degree the prevailing winds in the greater media view the U.S. auto industry as Old School and not in a good way, as in a gasping dinosaur struggling for its last breath.
Fair? No. But as I said before, Silicon Valley is The New Center of the Universe, and whatever shape the future of transportation takes – at least to those in the cheap seats boasting a modicum of analytical capability about a business they know nothing about – it will be imagined, conceived and injected with unending wonderfulness by the Titans of Silicon Valley.
So Mark Fields got caught in the unenviable position of trying to make Ford be relevant in two worlds that are 180 degrees apart. And things weren’t going well, at least not well enough to satisfy the Ford family, the board and the miscreants on Wall Street. So now he’s out, and Ford has “a nice guy” with “a different way of looking at things,” according to insiders at the helm. A giant “we’ll see” is the understatement of this or any other year.
But there’s more to this story, much more. Ford – and I’m speaking for all of “Detroit” here – simply doesn’t understand what’s going on. The difference between Detroit and Silicon Valley is that the Titans on the West Coast understand fundamentally that IT rules the frickin’ world now, while the Detroit auto companies see IT as something off “over there” that they have to get to eventually. And this attitude is absolutely killing Ford, and GM, for that matter.
This fundamental question is this: How can Ford transform itself into a “mobility company” when mobility is another word for technology, and when it comes to technology Ford is at least ten years behind the curve? Ford runs IT as a separate business unit, which is what I meant by off “over there.” In other words, the company is nowhere with this mobility thing, despite throwing money around in the tech world like a drunken sailor. And that attitude has decimated Ford and GM (I’m leaving out FCA because, after all, that company is simply a monetary play orchestrated by Marchionne for the Fiat heirs; the future of the transportation business has nothing to do with those carpetbagging mercenaries).
The ugly reality in all of this is that Detroit does not believe that we've shifted to an IT world, and that IT should be the dominant equation going forward if it wants to survive. This just in: The “Todds” (my general term for the IT hordes) have won. And unless and until Detroit gets with the program, we’re at the beginning of a long, downward spiral.
A word about Bill Ford here is merited. Bill has dreams of Ford playing a major role in mobility because his great grandfather put this country on wheels. In fact, Alan Mulally had a giant reproduction of a famous early Ford ad on the wall in his office with the provocative headline: “Opening The Highways To All Mankind.” It is a stunning ad with beautiful illustrated art, and both Alan and Bill took great meaning – and motivation – from it.
But this is a different world now, and the center of the universe isn't Detroit, and it doesn't have anything to do with Ford or GM. It's in Silicon Valley. And the monstrous war chests of cash out there humiliate anything "Detroit" can muster. I’m afraid that Bill Ford’s dreams of playing a major role in mobility are just that, dreams of a simpler time, which ultimately are going nowhere. Instead, Ford has to get real, and it is nowhere even close right now, which is a Mount Rushmore-sized bowl of Not Good.
It’s clear that we live in two worlds now, with "the makers" (Ford and GM), who have to keep building vehicles that people want and need, going up against "the dreamers" who so love what The Future of Mobility is going to be like and are so convinced that it will be wonderful, and wildly profitable. Where does Detroit fit in all of this? Whichever company of the Detroit Two manages the transition to the New Mobility the best will survive, maybe even thrive. And right now Ford is clearly behind (the slide in electric vehicle development for instance, is simply inexcusable, which just adds to the company’s woes).
So the swirling maelstrom has overwhelmed Ford, triggering a massive reshuffling of executives at the top of the company. But it's also just the beginning of a tumultuous era that threatens to overwhelm Detroit, I’m afraid.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
The famous 1924 ad for the Ford Motor Company.
PORSCHE DIGS DEEP.
16 May 2017 at 7:20pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. After writing about advertising the last couple of weeks – “Volkswagen Turns Its Lonely Eyes To… America” and “Jeep Recalculates” – it seems appropriate that I close out my trifecta of advertising columns with a perspective on what Porsche is up to of late in terms of communicating to its faithful, while at the same time attempting to draw in newcomers to the brand.
As long-term readers of this website might recall, I’ve been immersed in the aura of Porsche since the late 60s. My first encounters with the tiny German sports car maker occurred on the racetrack, when in the course of accompanying my brother to road-racing circuits all over the country with our Corvettes, I got exposed to the racing machines from Porsche.
The most memorable experience for me back in the day, which got me started on the Porsche thing, was when I was assigned the task of giving pit signals to my brother at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1968. Though we were running a Corvette in the GT class, the cars to beat for the overall win were the factory Porsche 907 prototype sports cars - low-slung, beautifully rendered racing machines that ended up dominating the race. And while holding out the signal board and leaning over the pit wall for my brother hour after hour, those 907 Porsches screamed by flat-out, under my extended pit board, as they were actually lower than the top of the pit wall! I’ll never forget it.
And later on, after the Corvette racing days came to an end, I got exposed to the Porsche mystique on my own terms, when I went out and purchased a used 911. During the brief course of owning that car I flogged it for all it was worth. I learned to love the 911 and I came to appreciate what the brand represented, because as a company, Porsche clearly marched to a different drummer.
And back in those days to drive a 911 well was a real accomplishment, because with its rear-engine placement it required absolute focus and concentration to drive fast. And to me that was the very best thing about the 911 because unlike today’s machines (including the latest 911s in fact), you had to drive the car. It wasn’t going to do it for you and if you made a mistake there were serious consequences. It was a wonderfully addicting driving experience. I owned several different Porsches after that, but none were as memorable or impressive as that chocolate brown 911.
Over the course of my ad career, I watched as Porsche transformed itself from a tiny company that made desirable sports cars that weren’t for everyone with their quirks and eccentricities charmingly intact, to a juggernaut purveyor of glistening sports cars and supercars that were pricier by the minute. And, oh yes, SUVs too. Lots and lots of SUVs. Yes, I decried – and cried – when the Cayenne made its debut, fighting the decision every step of the way, but that ship sailed long ago. In fact, that wonderfully quirky German sports car maker now sells more SUVs than anything else, making it one of the most profitable auto companies in the world. Today, the blistering hot sales of the Cayenne and Macan SUVs generate the mind-boggling profits that allow Porsche to still build desirable sports cars and to compete at the top levels of racing around the world.
But when all is said and done, I have to ask the obvious question: With more and more new customers being exposed to Porsche, and with most of those buyers only familiar with the Macan, or the Cayenne, or even the Panamera (the company's outstanding - and huge - luxury sedan) instead of the myriad variations of the 911 and the 718 sports cars, at what point does the Porsche brand become so far removed from its original essence that it completely loses its way? And at what point does the Macan, which is seemingly de rigueur at little league games and an essential part of the suburban landscape all across the country, become what Porsche represents?
I would say that we’ve already reached that point. Yes, the hardcore Porsche faithful still exist, but they seem to be dwindling in number. The reality is that the Porsche True Believers, who cling to their air-cooled dreams, are getting lost in the suburban shuffle, and there’s not much Porsche can do about it.
Except that Porsche isn’t giving up. Porsche operatives seem to be excruciatingly aware that if they lose the True Believers completely there would be nothing left. That’s why the company is feverishly building Porsche Experience Centers in its major markets. And that’s why it competes in GT racing around the world and for overall wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Another sign that Porsche isn’t going to give up on its founding mission anytime soon is the way it communicates about the brand. The company still believes that old-school direct mail serves its purpose. What? In this digital 24/7 social media circus that we live in today, Porsche is still clinging to direct mail? Yes, and its advertising agency, Cramer-Krasselt, seems to understand the enduring power of the written word too. In fact, a direct mail brochure for the new Porsche Panamera came across my desk the other day, and in this one masterfully written manifesto the passion for the Porsche brand is reignited in a cascade of wonderful words that are worth savoring. To wit:
For us, it’s always been the age of disruption.
The status quo dies hard. After all, it has one of the most powerful forces on the planet as its ally. Fear.
Enemy of change, stealer of ambition, fear is the champion of the half-measure, the checked swing, the almost-there. It softens the hard stance, rounds the sharp edge, and dulls the shine of a new idea.
None of us can pretend to be fearless. But every day we have the chance to decide how much influence our fears deserve. Sixty-nine years ago, we decided we wouldn’t fear what the world had to say about our cars. Instead of cowering behind research numbers seeking the most pedestrian design, or worrying about countering conventional wisdom, we would simply make the cars we wanted.
Correction: We would make the cars we desired. Dreamed of, actually.
So ever since that first Porsche, the 356 roadster, our market research has been our own heart rates. Fast, good. Slow, bad. We figure if something excites us tremendously, there’ll be enough people on the planet to make a business of it. If not, then not.
It’s a liberating thing, this leaving of fear on the side of the road. And the funny thing about it is that Porsche cars are more revered, more awarded, and more victorious in competition precisely because we didn’t caution our way and temper our enthusiasm.
A car of any form should never be a compromise, a settling for something less than spine-tingling. If you agree, consider getting behind the wheel of the new Panamera. It’s not the most expected path you could take. But a little disruption can be a good thing, as long as you’re the one doing the disrupting.
Courage changes everything.
In one fell swoop, the writer of this piece has reminded both the Porsche faithful and those who are new to the brand not only what Porsche stands for and how it thinks, but why it does things differently than any other car company in the world. The copy doubles down on Porsche’s “march to a different drummer” persona in a way that is compelling and memorable. Powerful stuff.
Now, admittedly, if the car mentioned at the end of this piece was the 911, all would be right with the world, but hey, you can’t have everything.
Porsche is digging deep here. The powers that be at the company know that the profitability from selling SUVs is a blessing, and that it gives Porsche the luxury to create ever more desirable sports cars and compete in major league races around the world.
But it comes with a heavy cost too. And Porsche operatives understand that they have to fight and claw to maintain their grip on the soul of the company.
At least Porsche understands the task at hand. That’s more than most other companies can muster.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
The Autoextremist, East Lansing, Michigan, March 1976.
8 May 2017 at 5:58pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. When working in the creative arena in the advertising business, the chance to work on an image-rich brand with larger-than-life resonance and marketing staying power is something to desire and wish for. Not everyone toiling away in the ad “biz” gets the chance to do this in their ad careers, but when they do it’s a golden, albeit rare, opportunity to savor.
On the one hand, working on a powerful brand with an enduring legacy is the easiest assignment you can ever hope for because ideas can rush out in a torrent of on-strategy creativity. On the other hand it is the most difficult challenge imaginable exactly for that reason. Why? Because even though those first euphoric ideas might be accurate and true to the brand in question, too often the early work veers toward the obvious and the expected, or worse, falls victim to the dreaded “it has been done before,” which is anathema when judging any response to a creative assignment of this magnitude. And there’s really nothing worse in the ad business when it comes to evaluating creative work than that, except when the notion of “borrowed interest” rears its ugly head, which seems to be too often the case in the current advertising environment. It could even be classified as an epidemic it’s so ubiquitous.
In the automotive advertising space a few genuine, truly iconic brands are present and accounted for today (I am not going to mention all of them, so please don’t write me to complain if your favorite Belchfire 8 isn’t represented).
As bad as the Diesel cheating scandal is, Volkswagen still resonates positively with legions of people. Even though the brand managers for this iconic Japanese automobile company are perpetually struggling to get back to the aura of “the motor company” days, consumers still love Honda. Even though German marketers squandered one of the greatest automotive ad themes of all time – “Engineered Like No Other Car In The World” – years and years ago, for a lot of people engineering is still fundamental to the legendary brand reputation of Mercedes-Benz.
And BMW is also blessed with another of the great automotive ad themes of all time - “The Ultimate Driving Machine” - and it still resonates for this brand even though its marketers have too often lost their way. For Porsche “Excellence was expected” as Karl Ludvigsen famously wrote, and the company formerly known as the little German sports car maker has become a juggernaut and one of the most desirable brands in the world.
Even though Sergio Marchionne insists on cranking up the volume in search of even more profit, and even though its marketing types have ventured into too many tchotchke distractions, Ferrari has the most impeccable of high-performance reputations.
Subaru, because its marketers have adhered to its brand message and turned it into a force to be reckoned with that transcends its hoary stereotypes. Having taken Chevrolet’s place in the U.S. market by its calculated campaign to become part of the American fabric and delivering unrivaled quality, Toyota has garnered intense loyalty over the years.
Even though you can count the great, iconic advertising campaigns for this brand on one hand going back 60 years or so – the most recent being a sobering 25 years ago – and even though Toyota has stolen much of its thunder, Chevrolet is still the essential American brand. And Ford is the founding car company that put this country on wheels. It is not just part of the American fabric, it is the American fabric when it comes to creating transportation and mobility for this nation and now, around the world.
And last but not least there’s Jeep, the brand with the legendary, unimpeachable reputation forged in World War II when it played a crucial role as part of the Arsenal of Democracy. That Jeep has stayed the course and stayed focused is a tribute to the True Believers involved in its stewardship over many decades. Jeep represents individuality, adventure, unrestricted mobility, and at its basic and most powerful, freedom. Jeep is, without question, the quintessential American brand.
And with that in mind, the advertising campaign launched for the new Jeep Compass is worth a closer look. The 60-second spot called "Recalculating" cleverly uses the female navigation “voice" from a cell phone as its voice-over. We hear "recalculating" throughout the spot as we see images of millennials (make no mistake, this advertising is aimed squarely at this specific segment of the population) having various pivotal life moments thrust upon them, and we watch as they decide to go their own way and forge their own paths, with the Jeep Compass along for the ride and playing a key role, of course.
It’s a highly engaging spot, one that is strategically focused and nicely executed. Yes, the voice-over annoys – "Stay single til you're 34... recalculating. Tow the company line... recalculating. Be a vegan... recalculating" – but that’s exactly the point, because when confronted with these life defining moments the people in the spot rebel, recoil, recharge, rebut, step up and inevitably choose freedom, with the Jeep Compass playing an essential part in all of the scenarios. You can watch the spot here.
(By the way the vegan bit seems to have set off a firestorm in the YouTube comments section, with a stream of hostile posts that suggest Jeep is insulting vegans, ruining the planet by encouraging the murder of innocent animals, etc. And needless to say, these people insist they will be “recalculating” their vehicle purchase decisions going forward... Ah, the Internet, it’s such a welcoming, collegial place. Not.)
For the most part this spot is exceptional, framing real life challenges for millennials while delivering a crucial message about the brand, which again, at its essence, is freedom. But after saying all that it’s still just a B+ spot. It could have been a grand slam A+ spot but the creative types responsible clearly couldn’t help themselves by leaving well enough alone, and so the spot is brought to a screeching halt with some unfortunate heavy-handedness right at the very end, as the voice-over attempts to make sense of it all with the following: "Love, hope, happiness... whatever your destination there's a million beautiful ever-changing ways to get us there." Ugh. And why? As in why ruin the tone and imagery of the spot with this self-righteous gibberish that adds exactly nothing? Fortunately this is followed by the on-screen tagline "Find Your True North" as the symbol for a compass appears. “Find Your True North” is actually dead, solid, perfect. Too bad they had to ruin it with those superfluous words right before that.
Olivier Francois, Fiat Chrysler chief marketing officer, had this to say about the campaign in an interview with The Detroit News: “We wanted to tap into a human truth. These millennials are literally living life through these recalculating moments. These are stories that really appeal to our core customer. Plus, the name of the car is Compass." Thank you, Captain Obvious.
As I said in the beginning, in the advertising world being handed the plum assignment of coming up with a new campaign for an iconic brand is a privilege and an opportunity, one fraught with challenges and pitfalls, but an opportunity nonetheless. The creatives involved in "Recalculate” almost pulled it off.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
VOLKSWAGEN TURNS ITS LONELY EYES TO? AMERICA
1 May 2017 at 6:56pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Back in my advertising days, I worked indirectly for a guy by the name of Phil Dusenberry, who ruled the creative efforts of the BBDO advertising empire like a potentate. Even though I, along with my able colleagues, was toiling on the Dodge account back in Detroit – an account that was responsible for a staggering 85 percent of the agency’s profitability at the time – occasionally we’d be summoned to the Supreme Creative Leader’s office in New York to have a chat. Usually it was for a new creative assignment, but sometimes it was so Phil could review proposed new creative work, which always led to some tense sessions.
Dusenberry was small in stature and he wasn’t one to raise his voice or explode into histrionics, but then again he didn’t need to. If he didn’t like something about the proposed creative work there would always be a calculated pause before he commented, in sotto voce, “It’s not very good, is it?” Those six words could send chills down spines, of rookie or veteran alike. And it has become a go-to saying around here at AE headquarters to describe any number of situations or scenarios, although we usually shorten it - for the whole brevity thing – to: “Not. Very. Good.”
I could probably devote at least three columns to that time-honored catchphrase and how it applies to the automobile business these days, from the manufacturers and suppliers, to the ad agencies and back again, but I’m going to focus on the advertising business today, in particular the new VW campaign for the Atlas SUV.
(Before I get started, I should point out that I apply my “33%” rule to advertising, for cars or otherwise. As in, 33% of advertising is tedious, unmitigated crap, 33% is serviceable but too often borderline workmanlike, and 33% is actually very good. What about the extra 1%? I reserve that designation for the truly out-of-the-park exceptional.)
Now, right up front, the new ad campaign for the Atlas (or Atlast as VW dealers refer to it), which utilizes Paul Simon’s song “America” throughout its various iterations, including the Simon and Garfunkel original as well as a remake recorded by First Aid Kit, actually is very good. I know you thought I would say Not. Very. Good., but that doesn’t apply here.
Driven almost completely by that iconic Paul Simon music track, this new VW campaign tells a story of a three-generation family and their cross-country journey of discovery across the United States. And, of course, they discover things about themselves – and the Atlas - along the way. The tagline? “Life’s as big as you make it.”
A sidebar? It’s interesting to note that VW’s U.S. agency of record, Deutsch, is behind this work. It's also interesting to point out that back in the throes of the 2016 Presidential campaign, when the Bernie Sanders campaign came out with a TV spot about one year ago using the same Paul Simon track, the Morning Joe program on MSNBC – where ad man Donny Deutsch is a recurring guest panelist – ran the sixty-second ad uninterrupted, twice. Not as part of an ad buy, but because the show’s hosts wanted to discuss its impact. And Deutsch just about came out of his chair with effusive praise for the spot. Is it just a coincidence that "America" ends up as the centerpiece of the new VW Atlas campaign by Deutsch’s ad agency? Maybe. Or maybe not.
At any rate, this work is carefully nuanced and nicely executed, but I have one very large concern. And that is you could plug in a couple of other car companies, at least, into the spots and the campaign would work just as well.
For one, I could see a sweeping brand spot for Subaru in VW’s “America” campaign. In fact, it would be damn near perfect. But even better, this should be an image campaign for Chevrolet, because they’ve clearly lost their way in search of finding new roads. (I consider the current ad work for Chevrolet to be the worst in the business right now. Tedious, insulting and completely devoid of brand integrity, the Chevrolet advertising has the fingerprints of heavy-handed clients all over it, those who don’t even have a shred of a clue as to what they’re doing. Tedious, unmitigated crap doesn’t even begin to cover it.)
VW is all in with this campaign, as well it should be. This company is at the very early days of rehabbing its image in the U.S., and the “family-sized” Atlas is just the ticket for SUV-crazed American consumers. It would have been nice, however, if the company refrained from pounding “with America’s best bumper-to-bumper limited warranty” into the voiceover at the end, but that’s what clients do. It’s as if they have to remind us all that it’s a car spot and that they should say something about the product, in case we missed it (you can watch the 1:30 version of the VW “America” ad campaign here).
Believe me, I get it. The client mindset dictates that creating memorable, positive impressions is never enough for nervous hand-wringers plunking down $5 million plus to produce a new advertising campaign, and another $40 million or so in launch spending in total. So, you get a bumper-to-bumper warranty mention at the end of the spot, which seems to come out of left field, because, well, it does come out of left field, and it manages to bring any accrued good feelings in the previous 1:25 to a screeching halt.
Oh well, VW and its ad agency almost hit one out of the park. Which is better than most.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Bill Mitchell ? The Passionate Design Maestro.
26 Apr 2017 at 7:54am
Editor's Note: Peter is doing research for a future Rant this week, so we're re-running one of his most-requested columns today - a look at the legendary Bill Mitchell and the glory days of GM design. This column was adapted for Peter's book, The United States of Toyota, and stands as an enduring reminder of GM's truly incredible design history. Enjoy! -WG
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. To say that the ‘50s and ‘60s were a different era in automotive history is not painting a proper picture of just how different it was. Detroit was much more of a freewheeling mindset back then. Car executives were bold, decisive, conniving, creative and power-hungry personalities who inevitably went with their gut instincts – which could end up being either a recipe for disaster or a huge runaway sales hit on the streets. The only committees you'd find back then were the finance committees – and they never got near the design, engineering, marketing or even the advertising unless there was some sort of a problem. These Car Kings worked flat-out, and they partied flat-out, too, ruling their fiefdoms with iron fists while wielding their power ruthlessly at times to get what they wanted – and rightly so in their minds – as they were some of the most powerful business executives on earth. In short, it was a world that was 180 degrees different from what goes on in today's rigid, namby-pamby, never-have-a-point-of-view-and-never-take-a-stand automotive environment.
No one represented the spirit of the business back then more than Bill Mitchell. He was bold, powerful, flamboyant, recalcitrant, maniacal, brilliant, frustrating and probably every other adjective you can think of for someone who was one of a kind. He was smart enough to know and he had the innate sense to understand that he had inherited the legacy of the great Harley Earl, and he never for a second forgot that fact – or let anyone else forget it either. And he played it for all it was worth with a swagger and strut that haven't been seen since. He often bumped heads with the "suits" down at the corporation when they didn't "get" one of his design recommendations – but he usually won the battles and got his way.
Mitchell was, in fact, his own potentate within the GM monolith, and he did outrageous things and spoke his mind and generally didn't give a rat's ass about any of the other bullshit that was part of corporate life at GM at the time. Mitchell was a larger-than-life personality, and it just didn't sit well with a lot of the sober financial suits down on the "14th floor" of the old GM building. He swaggered and strutted his way around the Design Staff like it was his own personal kingdom – and make no mistake about it – it was.
To give you just a small glimpse into how Mitchell held sway over things at Design Staff, the Corvette was the one car that meant more to him than any other. And whenever a young designer did a version and started to gloat even just a little bit, Bill would always set things straight with the following famous Mitchell-ism: "Don't flatter yourself, kid – I'm the one who does Corvettes here." (As a brief aside, one of the most hilarious things I ever witnessed as a kid was watching the mercurial Mitchell attempt to play golf at the Bloomfield Hills Country Club. He was horrible at it, and his frustration level would grow exponentially with each hole – and you could see his complexion glow even more beet-red than it already was almost by the minute. He had absolutely no patience for the game whatsoever, and finally he'd inevitably storm off the course without finishing his round and jump into one of his concept cars – the original Sting Ray, the Mako Shark, the Monza SS – you name it, and then he'd peel out of the parking lot spinning the tires and grabbing gears all the way down Long Lake Road.)
I've heard countless firsthand stories about the man and his ballistic fits in studios while cajoling his troops to go further and reach higher – but I saw a slightly different side to him too.
Because, after all, he lived just a block away from our house...
And I'll never forget the day I discovered that fact. I was still in my bike-riding days back then, but I remember resting with my buddies one blistering Friday afternoon on a corner in our neighborhood after a long, hot day of riding around aimlessly – we did that often back then – when we heard a rumble and roar coming from off in the distance. I knew right away that it wasn't motorcycles and that it was more than one of whatever it was – and just then a pack of the most stunning cars we'd ever seen burst around the corner and came rumbling right past us – the sun glinting off the barking pipes and the canopy of trees shimmering off the perfect mirror finishes of the paint jobs. This "horsepower train" was led by the "original" Corvette Stingray in Silver, followed by the XP700 Corvette (a "bubble-top" show car with side pipes also in Silver – it was Mitchell's favorite color), the first Mako Shark Corvette and a concept called the Corvair Sebring Spyder (also in Silver), a wild racing-inspired show car with dual cut-down racing windscreens and three pipes curling out and around each side in the back. They were so loud we couldn't even hear ourselves screaming whatever it was we were screaming, but after a split second to think about it, we took off, pedaling our guts out after them. It was apparent that these machines were heading for our part of the neighborhood – and as we tried to keep them in sight I realized they were turning on to my cross street!
We came around the corner and saw them pull into a driveway, exactly one block from my house. We stopped right at the end of the driveway with our mouths gaping down to the asphalt, as the drivers of the other cars handed the keys to the driver of the Stingray and he took them up to the front door where a woman collected them. Then, an Impala pulled up and the four men got in it and were gone, leaving the cars sitting in the driveway all lined up ticking and spitting as their pipes started to cool.
This became the Friday Afternoon Ritual of the summer – at least when Bill Mitchell was in town.
He liked having his "toys" at his disposal on the weekends. And every weekend the collection was different, depending on the mood he was in when he made the call to the Styling garage. I would watch what cars would be delivered on Friday, and then I would ride over there on Saturdays and just linger out in the driveway studying every square inch of every car hoping to get an audience with The Man himself – and maybe, just maybe – a ride in one of the machines. One thing about Bill Mitchell is he never got tired of the cars, and he never got tired of seeing people's reaction to them or answering questions about them. After about the third weekend of this, I finally got the nerve to introduce myself to him one Saturday morning as he was getting ready to go somewhere in the Sebring Spyder. From that moment on I was okay in his book because I was "one of Tony's boys" and he said, "Hop in – I'm just running up to the drug store, but come on..."
I jumped in the passenger seat (the interior was done in Silver Metallic leather), and he made sure I fastened my seatbelt, even though he didn't bother with his – and we were off. The Sebring Spyder was a revelation to me (although I had to look through the cut-down windscreen or off to the side to see) because it was the first time I had been in anything other than a production automobile. Thanks to my brother, I had ridden shotgun in plenty of fast cars, but this was different – this one was exotic to me. The ride literally lasted five minutes up to the store and five minutes back, but from then on I was a fixture in the Mitchell's driveway for the rest of the summer.
I ended up riding in every one of GM's Concept Cars of that era. All but one of them being chauffeured by none other than Bill Mitchell himself. Just for the record, my favorites were the original Stingray, the Monza GT Coupe in Silver and the Monza SS Spyder in Red (look them up – they were the stunning Corvair-based show cars with the front ends eerily similar to the racing Chaparrals).
Oh, and the one not chauffeured by Bill Mitchell? That was an unbelievably wild Pontiac show car called the XP400. It started out as a 1964 Nassau Blue Pontiac Bonneville convertible that had more of a '50s custom look to it (complete with a stowable hard tonneau cover that was way ahead of its time). Big deal, you say? Well, stuffed in the engine bay was a 421-cubic-inch, Mickey Thompson-prepared drag race motor with a 671 GMC blower producing, as Ken Eschebach (the gifted technician at "Styling" who basically kept everything running for Mitchell) said, "All Mickey said was that it had almost 700 h.p." Oh, and one more thing – it had a lever that you could engage that would open up un-muffled side-pipes any time you felt the urge to.
Bill Mitchell had the XP400 dropped off one summer day in 1964 for my older brother to play with for the weekend. I have two memories of that weekend: 1. Sitting in the back seat with two other guys (a total of five in the car) rolling down a two-lane road headed for Woodward Avenue – in first gear. My brother punched it, and that beast shrieked and howled as it charged down the road, spinning its rear tires in the first three gears, our necks snapping in unison with every shift. The acceleration almost took the wind out of me. He backed out of it at 125 only because we had to stop for a light. The thing was brutally fast – a truly nasty-beautiful machine in every sense of the word. And 2. Pulling into gas stations and getting out to check the oil just so we could see the expression on the attendant's face as we unlatched the hood. And we did that often because Mickey had set the motor up with "drag race piston rings" as Ken told us, so it used 21 quarts of oil in one weekend. Incredible...
Things weren't all blissful in those years. I heard rumblings of things being "different" in the Mitchell household, and the next thing I knew he had gotten divorced – and then he got remarried to a woman who lived around the corner from us, one block away in the opposite direction! I guess he liked the neighborhood.
At any rate, Bill Mitchell's new wife had a stepson (though several years younger than our crowd) who became part of our bike-riding gang. It was during this time that I really got to know Bill Mitchell beyond the occasional car rides. I used to hang out in his basement for hours with his stepson, and I'll never forget what a shrine to the automobile it was – a virtual museum of automotive art and automobilia. The man had his favorite drawings plastered all over the place – beautiful illustrations from the time he first started drawing cars as a young boy that were lit with little spotlights. He had personally signed photos of most of the all-time great Grand Prix drivers from the '30s, '40s, '50s and early '60s. He had a Plexiglas case containing the helmet, goggles and gloves that the great Rudolph Carraciola wore in one of his last drives for the Mercedes-Benz factory racing team (I finally understood why Mitchell's favorite color was Silver – he had Silver Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union stuff everywhere). He had other personal effects from famous drivers all over the place – a Stirling Moss helmet, gloves from the great Juan Manuel Fangio – you name the driver, and he had something personally signed by them and given to him. And there were countless models, original paintings, pictures, plaques and badges – a cornucopia of car stuff that is just staggering to think about now.
There were a few times when he would come down and spend time with us, and since I thought I wanted to be a car designer I'd pepper him with questions about anything and everything. I remember one particular day when he was in an expansive mood, and he took me on a personal guided tour of his collection of stuff – and it was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. Here was a living automotive legend in every sense of the word taking the time to convey to a kid what all of this stuff really meant to him. What struck me right away was how he was as much of a pure fan and in awe of his favorite drivers as anyone. He expounded on every single piece of memorabilia – where it came from, how it came about, his personal experiences with the driver, etc. But the best part was when I'd ask him about a particular drawing he had done, and he'd go off for several minutes explaining every nuance, every line and every shape down to the last detail.
In that brief moment of time, I finally understood the passion, the intensity and the love for everything automotive that was Bill Mitchell. And I realized right then and there that my love for everything automotive had some sort of place in life – and maybe even a future – all because Bill Mitchell took the time to give a kid a tour of his personal automotive museum.
For all that has been said and written about Bill Mitchell – the tough-guy persona, the bluster, and all the stories and anecdotes of his temper tantrums in the studio – I think people forget what a truly gifted and talented man he was. And I also think people have forgotten how his relentless, unwavering passion for the automobile and automotive design inspired countless young designers and helped propel General Motors to the top of the automotive design world in his day. Something that was truly lost on this company for the longest time.
Right now, there are car guys and gals from many disciplines slogging away at every car company on the planet – and maybe even some will read this column. An elite few of them may have even managed to rise to the top in their car companies with their spirit and passion intact, which is no mean feat in this day and age.
But in the face of a business that grows more rigid, regulated and non-risk-taking by the day, there are still lessons to be learned from the legacy of Bill Mitchell. If anything, we must remember what really matters in this business above all else – something he instinctively knew in his gut – and that is to never forget the essence of the machine, and what makes it a living, breathing mechanical conduit of our hopes and dreams. And that in the course of designing, engineering and building these machines everyone needs to aim higher and push harder – with a relentless, unwavering passion and love for the automobile that is so powerful and unyielding that it can't be beaten down by committee-think or buried in bureaucratic mediocrity.
Bill Mitchell had an uncanny knack for getting the best out of the talented people around him. And he led the only way he knew how – and that was by fueling creativity with his passion and by the sheer force of his will. What he believed in is as true and vibrant today as it was in his era – and hopefully, at least in some quarters of a few car companies, that will always be the case.
Bill Mitchell stands next to two of the most iconic GM designs under his reign: The 1959 Corvette Stingray racer concept (XP87), and the 1961 Corvette Mako Shark (XP-755) concept. A 19-year-old Peter Brock (who later went on to design the Cobra Daytona Coupe for Carroll Shelby), Larry Shinoda and Mitchell himself worked on the Stingray racer in 1957, which obviously influenced the fabulous '63 Corvette Stingray production car, and Shinoda and Mitchell worked on the Mako Shark concept. One of the countless anecdotes from the Mitchell era? He caught a Mako shark on a fishing trip in Florida and had it mounted on a wall in his office. He kept telling the designers that he wanted the paint job on the Mako Shark concept to look exactly like the shark on his wall, with the same color gradations. After Mitchell rejected several attempts at painting the XP-755 concept car and amid growing frustration, a few designers sneaked into his office late one night while Mitchell was out of town and removed the shark from his office wall. They then had the paint shop paint Mitchell's prized catch exactly like the latest paint job on the Mako Shark concept. They then put the shark back up on his wall and presented the new paint job on the Corvette Mako Shark concept to Mitchell, who pronounced it "perfect." -PMD
The stunning 1959 Corvette Stingray racer is still sensational to this day (and the Autoextremist's all-time favorite car). When (now retired) Ed Welburn took over GM Design, one of his first orders of business was to commission the complete restoration of this iconic vehicle, and it remains the unquestioned jewel of GM's collection of historic vehicles.
The 1963 Corvette Stingray is still fabulous to this day. The "split" rear window design was one of its signature design elements but it only appeared for one model year. Zora Arkus-Duntov, the famous Corvette Chief Engineer in its formative years and an automotive legend in his own right, vehemently despised the design detail and fought with Bill Mitchell tooth and nail over it in one of the monumental internal battles in GM history. Mitchell won that battle but Duntov won the war, as the design detail was gone on the 1964 model Corvette.
The introduction of the 1963 Corvette Stingray remains one of the most memorable debuts in American automotive history.
(Photo by Roger Holliday/The DeLorenzo Collection)
Bill Mitchell visits with Peter's brother Tony on the grid before the Daytona 24 Hour race in 1969. The Owens/Corning Corvette Racing Team made its official international racing debut at Daytona that year and Mitchell stopped by to say hello. Mitchell loved being around race tracks and would often bring advanced GM concept cars up to Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, to take the pulse of racing enthusiasts. The Corvette Stingray racer used a spare chassis from the ill-fated, one-off, factory-entered Corvette SS, which appeared at Sebring in 1957. Mitchell took the Corvette SS chassis and re-bodied it into the Stingray racer and raced it privately on his own dime, with famous Corvette Racer Dick Thompson, "The Flying Dentist" at the wheel. The Stingray racer made its debut at Road America, painted red (below). Once the development of the 1963 Corvette Stingray production car program started taking shape, Mitchell "retired" the Stingray racer and painted it a gleaming metallic silver (his favorite color), which was reminiscent of the Mercedes Grand Prix machines from the 50s, his favorite racing cars.
THE POST-NEW YORK AUTO SHOW BLUES.
17 Apr 2017 at 10:27am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. The New York International Auto Show is one show I always look forward to attending for some reason, even though the whole exercise veers toward the tedious most years. This year was no exception. Why? Lots of hype but the reality is that there wasn't much there, there.
Yes, there were some product hopefuls of note that made their debuts. Subaru finally came out with a large SUV concept – the “Ascent” - aimed at all of the Subaru faithful who had wandered off in the desert when their need for a larger vehicle went unfulfilled by their favorite brand. The Ascent changes all of that. And it means that the Subaru momentum – barring a major screw-up – will go on unabated. In fact, in a preview of our next Brand Image Meter due in a couple of months, Subaru will ascend to our highest ranking.
The Subaru Ascent Concept.
Toyota took the wraps off of its FT-4X, for “Future Toyota”-Four-Wheel Drive Crossover. It’s a four-wheel-drive "toolbox" - their words, not mine - created at Toyota’s Calty Design Research Inc. in Newport Beach, California. There was a lot of bad-mouthing directed at this concept by some auto journos but make no mistake, the significance of this vehicle is twofold: 1. It means that Toyota is getting ready to seriously challenge the Jeep Wrangler, which is huge, because Jeep has been gliding along with no competition ever since GM was forced to delete the Hummer brand due to the bankruptcy. And 2. Much to Ford’s chagrin, it is very likely that Toyota will beat the new Ford Bronco to market with its entry, which may not seem like a big deal now, but it is, in fact, a huge deal. Does the FT-4X have some design elements that won’t make production? Yes, of course, but I expect its overall funkiness will be present and accounted for in its production counterpart, and that is a very good thing.
The Toyota FT-4X concept.
The big news from New York, judging by the hordes of people crowded together at the press conference, was the debut of the production version of the Lincoln Navigator. Decked out in an unfortunate shade of “yachting” blue – listen, vive la difference and all that but it didn’t come off well, I dubbed it “Apologetic Blue” – the new Navigator is everything the Navigator faithful could want, and much more. But that isn’t the question here, is it? The question is whether or not the new Navigator will conquest shoppers away from the acknowledged King Kong of domestic luxury SUVs, the Cadillac Escalade. The new Navigator seems to touch all the bases, but prying buyers’ hands away from the Escalade is an entirely different thing. I expect the Navigator to bring existing Navigator and pro-Ford customers back to Lincoln showrooms in droves, but whether or not it can go beyond that is one of the giant “we’ll see” questions of the year.
The Lincoln Navigator.
Other quick takes? Except for the mildly entertaining Mercedes-AMG GT Concept – their “me too” competitor to the new Porsche Panamera – the Mercedes display was lackluster and borderline embarrassing. They chose to show a special package of the GLA-AMG, which veered dangerously close to ClownCarVille, it was that bad. And, as if to top that off, they showed a matte-finish puke green Mercedes-AMG GT R that was too stupid for words, plus a plethora of AMG-tinged SUVs that blended together in a non-seamless blur. Overall, there was not one thing about the Mercedes-Benz display that even remotely said, “we have it goin’ on.” Not one.
The Mercedes-AMG Concept.
Speaking of Porsche, the Panamera Sport Turismo is this year’s leading entry to AE’s “The Question That Absolutely No One Is Asking” Sweepstakes. All I have to say is, why? Or better, WTF?
The Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo.
The Nissan display was so horrendously bad I won’t even bother going into it. That company – and their current sales trajectory – remains a mystery to me, one that I have no interest in exploring. Audi was bathed in its usual smugness, punctuated by R8s painted in matte finish that did damn near the impossible: make the R8 look ordinary. Not attractive. Audi also officially renamed its performance division “Audi Sport,” which garnered not one bit of attention as in, who cares?
And of course Alfa Romeo showed more of its cobbled together Stelvio SUVs than were even known to exist, bringing smoke-and-mirrors marketing to a new level of absurdity. Does the Stelvio matter? No. Will it save Alfa Romeo? No. Despite Marchionne's statements to the contrary (see "On The Table" -WG) he needs to make a deal, everything else - including the resurrection of Alfa - is just a sideshow at this point.
BMW arrayed all of its vehicles to look exactly like a dealer lot, apparently, because BMW is now officially phoning it in at every major auto show. So did Jaguar and Land Rover for that matter. As for the Range Rover Velar, it’s nicely generated but beyond that, am I missing something here? It didn’t look new, at all. But then again, maybe that’s the point, because the people paying giant piles of money for these things don’t want any surprises.
Speaking of dealer lots, Kia, Hyundai and Toyota all crammed their displays with as much product as possible, not to good effect I might add. Oh, and this just in: The unfortunate Kia Stinger absolutely sucked in Detroit and it still sucked upon further review in New York. The fact that this unfortunate exercise that blends ideas from oh, at least six different existing designs has garnered even half the attention that it has is just the latest in a long line of industry embarrassments. Move it along, folks, there’s nothing to see here. And the new VW Golfs looked polished and bright - thankfully, VW operatives know not to screw that car up. And the Genesis SUV concept looked to be a solid entry, but certainly nothing special. Hyundai better be careful here, because Genesis needs to be special, and that SUV isn’t.
And speaking of clown cars, the Honda Civic Type R was so bitterly disappointing I don’t know where to begin. Burdened with every obligatory add-on body piece that could be found, plus even a few more that were pasted on for good measure, the Type R has a scattered look that is just flabbergasting. It made me go back and look at the Civic itself, and the real problem is that design has not worn well, at all. In fact to use the term “design language” in conjunction with the Civic is an oxymoron. I don’t care one lick about the alleged performance of the Type R, it looks like a refugee from “The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift.” And believe me, that couldn’t be further from being a good thing.
The Honda Civic Type R.
And last not but least – and by the way, if, as a manufacturer, your car/truck/SUV didn’t make the cut in my column I hope it triggers deep introspection – there was the Bugatti Chiron. With a mid-mounted, 8.0-liter, direct-injected W16-cylinder engine with quad turbochargers operating with sequential boost that develops 1,500HP and 1,600 Nm of torque, the Chiron is almost beyond comprehension. And with the capability of going 0–186 mph in 13.6 seconds and a top speed that’s estimated to be over 280 mph – all for a cool $3 million base price – if the Chiron represents The End of the Automotive Era right before we dissolve into a cesspool of smelly, shared autonomous pod cars, then I am good with it. The Chiron is an eloquent rebuttal to all of the naysayers who want to do away with the freedom of driver-operated mobility.
And I love it.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
The Bugatti Chiron.
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