The Latest Auto Extremist
Jaguar marketers travel to the Planet Tedious.
14 May 2013 at 11:45am
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. In the going on fifteen years (!) of writing this column and producing Autoextremist.com I have seen just about everything from the automakers and the executives who ply their trade in this business. But lest you think observing and commenting about this industry gets old, it never does. Why? Because just when you think people might be finally getting it and things seem to be progressing to a smarter, happier place, a monumental misstep of complete and utter boneheaded-ness rears its ugly head and emphatically dispenses with the notion that the Bad Old Days of this business are long gone.
Instead, I hate to report this – yet again - but they’re very much alive and well, unfortunately.
Having a front-row seat to witness the brilliance - or abject stupidity - that goes on in this business can be uproariously humorous at times but the reality is that it is not for the faint of heart. Observing “executives” who are overmatched before they even get out of bed careen around and just flat out blow it when millions upon millions of marketing dollars are on the line - with the fate of a company teetering on their limited abilities - is painful. Excruciating even.
I’ve railed against the spineless weasels, the recalcitrant twerps, the egomaniacal dullards and the bold-faced idiots all of these years, knowing full well that the mind-numbing incompetence may ebb and flow along and even go dormant for a while, but it will never be fully eradicated. It’s just not possible.
Yes, this business is a roller-coaster ride made up of sheer elation punctuated by moronic behavior, longtime AE readers understand that. And so do a lot of smart people in this business. But when executives think they’re smarter than everyone else, disaster usually ensues. And every once in a while companies in this business that should know better get it so wrong that it’s shocking.
Let’s take Jaguar, for instance.
The download? Classic British car company. Fantastic historical relevance with its beautiful D-Type racers and the vaunted XK-120 sports car. Responsible for one of the greatest cars of all time – the timeless and fabulous E-Type – but doomed to producing wildly inconsistent production cars ever since. They managed to get things close to good occasionally, certainly enough to keep the brand breathing at any rate. Bought and sold by Ford, now owned by the Indian conglomerate Tata, they’re ready to capture the imagination of the consumer public once again with their expressive F-Type sports car.
At least that’s how Jaguar and its ad agency think the script will play out.
Is the F-Type a nicely rendered car? Absolutely, but even though the design is competent it’s certainly not the design “reach” that I expected from a new sports car from Jaguar. In many ways it’s too predictable and too grounded in the contemporary idiom, and it doesn’t say “oh em gee, did you see that new Jag?” like it needed to. When you only get one shot at it I expected to be wowed, but the new F-Type is merely okay.
The bad news for the F-Type is that it will make a splash on the scene and be an afterthought within a year. It’s just not memorable. And that’s really unfortunate.
But that’s not the issue here today because the advertising campaign for the new F-Type (and the strategic thinking behind it) is so wrong on so many levels I hardly know where to begin.
The horror show begins with the creative director of Jaguar ad agency Spark 44, who said he wants consumers – according to Automotive News - to view the two-seat convertible as "the baddest boy on the block." Really, they’re going to spend $20 million to say that?
The naiveté behind this statement is obvious, painfully so I might add. In their minds they’re going to go up against the new Corvette and the new Porsche 911 with this “baddest boy” posturing and it’s so wrong-headed I am just stunned.
Even in its brief heyday when the E-Type Jaguar was the talk of the automotive world, Jaguar was never even remotely the “baddest boy” on the block. It was sleek, sophisticated, beautiful and sexy - and amazingly enough that image survives to this day despite the fact that they tried to kill it many times over throughout history with relentlessly incompetent cars masquerading as desirable – but there was never a hint of “badass” associated with it. And for good reason too.
And guess what? Nothing has changed. Despite its many missteps Jaguar has managed to retain a shred of integrity all of these years, but clearly there was no one involved in this project with a modicum of sense, or history, or context, or hell, I don’t know, even a hint of a clue.
It gets worse.
A spokesman for Jaguar-Land Rover North America said that the new F-Type is aimed at alpha male "go-getters." Oh, ugh. Wait a minute - are they going to turn the F-Type into the thinking man’s Camaro SS? What am I missing here? They’ve even signed the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick to an endorsement deal, suggesting that he would fit in nicely with the new F-Type’s “march to a different drummer” positioning.
Why stop there? Why not hook up with Monster Energy drinks while they’re at it? I mean, if you’re going to be wrongheaded and resolutely inappropriate, why not abandon all pretense of common sense and try to wash away the historical legacy of one of the great automotive brands in one fell swoop?
It gets even worse.
Jaguar and Playboy also announced a deal to have the Playmate of the Year pose in front of an F-Type for a cover wrap on the June issue. Repeat that to yourselves, please, s-l-o-w-l-y. No, I’m not kidding. I would imagine the Hooter’s sweepstakes giveaway is right around the corner, wouldn’t you? I mean, if you’re going to go down in flames you might as well blow the whole thing to smithereens while you’re at it, right?
For the record, the ad campaign for the F-Type is called “Your Turn.” It’s supposed to seduce alpha male types “who love fast cars and sports” and make at least $150,000 a year. That certainly narrows it a bit. Better still, why not just say your target is anyone with a checkbook who can stumble into a dealer? At least it would be brutally honest. And more accurate. But no, we have to watch as they go through the motions of naming a target market that could be applied to oh, any number of luxury automobiles. If you’re getting the picture that Jaguar marketers have traveled to the Planet Tedious, you would be correct.
I won’t bore you with a description of the campaign, but needless to say it’s everything that a campaign for a new Jaguar sports car shouldn’t be.
I write about brands - and the creativity, deep thought and degree of expertise needed to market them - often in this column. And I will remind you again that it’s one of the toughest endeavors out there. If it were easy to do well, every brand would be a marketing success story and every new car launch would be mind-boggling in its overall market impact.
Jaguar is going to spend $20 million on the initial launch of the new F-Type, a car that starts at $69,000 and goes up to $92,000, and I just cringe at the thought – or the lack thereof – that went into it.
This brings to mind yet another brand that is so desperate to be hip that they make a mess of things – and repeatedly too. (See anything Mercedes-Benz has done in this market for the last decade at least, if you need to be reminded.)
The stewards of Jaguar have decided that they will use the launch of the F-Type to reinvent the brand so as to appeal to a whole new hipper audience. In the process of doing so they will turn the brand into a recurring joke, with “baddest ass badboys” thrown in for good measure.
It’s an insult to the brand’s legacy and a rank insult to anyone who might even be remotely interested in checking the F-Type out.
In other words, it’s a double-shot of Not Good with room for pathetic.
It would be laughable if it weren’t so damn excruciating to watch.
Here's an idea: If they’re going to be this off-base and insulting to the brand, why not dredge up that immortal Jaguar print ad from the classic movie “Crazy People”? The one with the riveting headline that read - "For men who'd like hand-jobs from beautiful women they hardly know."
At least it would be honest.
And not tedious.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
We are not Scion. (Thank goodness.)
6 May 2013 at 1:32pm
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Asked by an interviewer from Automotive News whether they would start chasing Gen Y buyers like every other automaker searching for a clue, Andy Goss, the CEO of Jaguar Land Rover North America, had this to say: "You should not pigeonhole yourself so much. We conquest customers but we are selling cars that are $40,000 to $80,000. They are bought by people in their 30s and early 40s. Even the average Evoque buyer is 43 years old. The average (Evoque) transaction price is nearly $50,000. We are not Scion."
We are not Scion. Halle-frickin' luja. Those are the smartest words to come out of this business in months. Thank goodness one auto CEO has the balls to say it.
We are not Scion. Meaning? We know who we are and more important we know who we’re not. And besides that we’re not interested in 1. Being all things to all people, and 2. Going down-market to chase the rainbow-colored unicorns (aka entry-level buyers) that maybe, just maybe, might be enticed to our brand if we pander to them just so.
And by the way, Toyota’s actual entry-level brand isn’t the point here. What started out as a youth-chasing nameplate ended up appealing to boomers and others who didn’t exactly fit the stated target to begin with. Now? Scion is floundering around searching for a clue (cheeky, stylish Subaru antidote or sporty car fun?), like any number of car companies who attached themselves to that perilous mission of being desirable to younger buyers.
I have watched repeatedly as luxury auto brands get all tangled-up trying to entice youthful buyers into the fold. And at times it borders on the laughable. Mercedes-Benz traditionally has been the most egregious offender, stumbling around trying to chase every segment they can get their hands on, all the while diminishing their brand overall. It’s an idea that Mercedes-Benz marketers never get tired of, because they seem to revel in dumb and dumber behavior. They’ve squandered their brand legacy in this market in a lurid two-steps forward, three-back dance of ineptitude that has been mind-numbingly tedious to watch over the years.
And now they’re about to launch the front-wheel-drive CLA this fall - their latest answer to the question that no one was really asking - and despite the usual lights in the media who are lining up to canonize it (ensuring their invites to the next Mercedes-Benz overseas junket) it remains to be seen whether or not it will be the hottest thing in the market, or the new $30,000 (or thereabouts) Mercedes C- and E-Class killer, deftly cutting the legs out from under its own showroom siblings.
I can assure you that if anyone at Mercedes-Benz thinks they know – and that means you, Steve Cannon – they’re sucking on a giant Hose of Delusion. Cannon, you may remember, is the current CEO of Mercedes in the U.S. who approved the hiring of a young hip filmmaker – Casey Neistat – to infuse hotness to the CLA ahead of its launch, which is proof positive that Mercedes has now officially slipped into the “Let’s Throw Absolutely Everything We Can Come Up With Against The Wall And See What Sticks” school of marketing, aka MYTMI, for MindlessYouTubeMarketingImperatives.
BMW went about it differently – and smarter too, at least for five minutes anyway – by designating MINI as its entry-level brand, which was an eye-opening success until they just screwed it all up by thinking too much. As in adding too many nameplates, too many models and too much, well, too. Or, paraphrasing the immortal words of Joe Pesci as Nicky Santoro in Casino: “These guys could fuck up a cup of coffee.”
It seems to be a particular affliction of most German auto marketers in that they just can’t leave well enough alone. They get edgy and restless and are deathly afraid they’ve left a buck on a table somewhere and someone’s gonna find out. Instead of leaving well enough alone, BMW executives have embarked on their own particular journey of stupidity by planning to unleash front-wheel-drive versions of the 1 Series (around $30,000, of course, there’s that magic number again), which will share underpinnings with the next-gen MINI and directly compete with upper-echelon MINIs in the market at the same time. Frickin’ brilliant.
What part of this drill do BMW and Mercedes-Benz marketers not understand? They spent decades and billions upon billions of dollars trying to pound into consumers’ heads that their brands of cars were special and that they cost more because they’re automotive conveyances to aspire to. Not for everyone, to be sure, because you had to step up your game to get into one of them, but it was worth it in the end because these brands did things differently and had a point of view that was slightly better than all the rest.
Now? They’re going to throw it all away by offering lease specials that can be priced to compete with Hyundai and KIA dealers.
What’s wrong with this picture? How about everything? And please spare me the touchy-feely marketing mumbo-jumbo that suggests “oh, we have to become more approachable because if we don’t appeal to young people where will we be?”
Well, for starters, if you bring an attitude like that to the table I would suggest that you deserve to be scrambling to keep your head above the shark-infested waters populated by the Hyundais and KIAs of the world. And please don’t blame the entry-level buyers or the so-called “young” buyers for the blatant overreaching and desultory overthinking going on in this business right now either.
Young people aren’t stupid. They’re brand savvy too - much more so than any brand studies are actually quantifying. I see an entire generation being put in a box wrapped in Green with warnings attached suggesting that it’s a brand new day in marketing and that these people are really different.
Really? I’m not buying it. Not every damn product in this market has to be tinged with Green fairy dust and able to return to the loins of earth after use wrapped in delightfully benign loam sludge with a whiff of begonias thrown in for good measure.
Excuse me but these new buyers aren’t all that different. Quality still means something, for one thing, especially to younger buyers gaining on their careers. And no, not the quality bestowed by those ridiculous “Are you satisfied with your dealer experience and if you are please give us the top ratings?” surveys that mean absolutely nothing to the consumers filling them out (or anyone else for that matter).
I’m talking fundamental quality. As in, nothing ever goes wrong with the product, of course, but more important, that the presentation, look, feel, style, texture and tone of the brand are relentlessly consistent and exude a quality perspective from every angle. It’s not only how you present your brand but it’s what you have to say as well and that must remain firm and unwavering across all communication platforms and in-person interactions.
You would think this would be obvious and easy, but it isn’t. Car company executives’ skewed thought processes get in the way – and all the negative that entails - and the results can often produce a giant bowl of Not Good, or four-foot-high Day-Glo lease numbers on the side of Mercedes-Benz cars on dealer lots (classy that, by the way). Or “entry-level” front-wheel-drive BMWs that should never see the light of day.
Memo to luxury automakers: You have to stand for something other than what amounts to chasing tail in pursuit of the latest trends blowing in the wind. And when I see BMW and Mercedes-Benz marketers and others – you know who you are – flail away and talk themselves into believing that more volume by way of more approachability is the answer to all of their problems, both real and imagined, I just cringe.
Actually, the biggest problem for these luxury automakers is the word “more” come to think of it. Top managers see how much money the company is making so they want more of it, thinking, of course, that the sun will never set on their golden empire. But in order to make more money they automatically assume that they need to make more cars and fill more niches and set more quarterly and yearly sales records. And if they don’t, those managers will be replaced for new ones that promise, well, more. But in the end, this quest for more causes these companies to lose sight of who they are and begin a sickening downward spiral into mediocrity that is extremely difficult to reverse.
If the concept of “more” is the biggest problem for luxury automakers then the biggest opportunity lies in this word: Aspiration. It’s the word every luxury automaker executive should never lose sight of, because in essence it’s why the brands they represent exist in the first place.
People desire luxury brands that speak to them in word, thought, style and deed. Whether they find the historical legacy of a brand attractive or they find the way the brand presents itself while executing its product philosophy enticing, an emotional connection – and fundamental trust in the brand - is established that’s undeniable, one that can grow over time. A connection that takes many, many years - as in decades - to establish.
When I see Mercedes-Benz, BMW and other luxury automakers eschewing all of that in their unending quest for more cash, they are knowingly squandering their hard-won brand reputations either by playing in niches and segments where they don’t belong, or by transforming themselves into something they’re not in order to appeal to customers whose tastes and sensibilities are changing by the hour. And in the process of doing so they’re completely forgetting their fundamental raison d’etre and what got them to this point to begin with. (If anything these brands should push higher upmarket, letting the coming brands fill in space beneath them.)
The important thing for these luxury auto manufacturers to remember is that they have to know who they are before they can even begin to understand where they want to go.
We are not Scion, indeed.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
The Great Sergio?s End Game is finally exposed - and it ain't pretty.
29 Apr 2013 at 5:20pm
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of The Exalted One, Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne. From Day One of his adventure here in the U.S., when he took the smoldering near-ruins of Chrysler off of the Obama administration’s hands, I called him the Opportunist of the Century, an out-and-out carpetbagger who was gifted a fading American industrial icon for a song, a company that before then had already been run into the ground by the Germans and carved up and left for dead by the mercenary incompetents at Cerberus.
Yet Marchionne was smart enough to know this: That the True Believers at Chrysler had managed to do yeoman's work in sustaining and nurturing a burgeoning product program - made up of new and freshened Jeeps and a state-of-the-art pickup truck - one that was in desperate need of a cash infusion to turn it into a real, live, competitive product portfolio. And Voila! Sergio was not only just the self-described miracle worker to do it, the Obama administration was just desperate enough to wash their hands of an industry that annoyed and confounded them – lead by the interminably loathsome Steven Rattner, the self-aggrandizing “genius”/media whore who derisively wrote off the industry after taking credit for having saved it - so to hand Marchionne the keys to Chrysler for a relative pittance was a classic no-brainer.
And so it was done.
From there, it got ugly. A conniving PR-hungry Master Manipulator, The Great Sergio charmed the pants off of lesser lights in the media (and trust me, of those there are many) who should have known better. Mixed in with intermittently competent automotive media types who were desperate to have an executive darling that they could canonize – and hungry for self-writing stories that would appease content-at-all-costs editors – the “genius” moniker quickly became attached to Sergio’s every move. “Marchionne’s espresso-fueled work habits are legendary!” the headlines screamed. ”Running two empires with aplomb!” the stories continued, each more nauseating than the last.
The general slant was that Sergio was The Answer, the brilliant times ten visionary who had the guts and gumption to pull the poor, downtrodden souls at Chrysler up by their lapels and give them a purpose for living again. When the reality was the Marchionne was a shrewd, calculating speculator who understood that he could propel his image to lofty new heights on the backs of the True Believers in design, engineering and product development in Auburn Hills, the ones who actually did the heavy lifting and were the sole reason for Chrysler’s rejuvenation. But Sergio didn’t care, because the free ride given to him by the slobbering, bootlicking media meant he didn’t have to.
And that free ride only served to mask the real Sergio, the bombastic, egomaniacal stronzo with ruthless disregard for the people around him, including his 30+ direct reports, a figure that the media routinely touted as being another sign of his brilliance when in reality all it did was magnify the fact that Marchionne’s legendary, micromanaging M.O. was frighteningly out of control. One that would eventually leave a crippled management “structure” and render whatever is left of Fiat-Chrysler in a precarious position, adrift and rudderless the moment Sergio took his cash and left. Which, as insiders know, could be sooner rather than later.
The rest of the story you know if you’ve read this column for any length of time. Protected and handled by his unctuous prick of a PR/bag man, Gualberto Ranieri, Marchionne is now portrayed simply as Sergio the Savior, a saintly auto industry executive bestowed with Lee Iacocca-type cult-hero status (a gross injustice to the albeit spotty legacy of Iacocca, I might add), even though most of his accomplishments were the result of simply being in the right place at exactly the right time.
And now, after seeing Fiat-Chrysler’s profits soar because of new products born and bred due to the blood, sweat and tears of those True Believers (except for the just-completed first quarter when profits were decimated by the crushing costs of two new product launches), it’s time for the final chapter to unfold: Sergio’s End Game.
The High-Octane Truth about The Great Sergio's End Game is that it’s even more ugly than anyone has heretofore imagined.
This entire push by Marchionne - the carefully orchestrated personal image wrangling, the “Imported from Detroit” marketing campaign, the grand gestures to make people think that he actually gives a shit about this community? It was all so much unmitigated bullshit.
It was never about saving Chrysler or rescuing its poor, downtrodden minions. And it was never about doing good for the perennially mocked City of Detroit or the domestic automobile industry for that matter, either. For Marchionne it was about taking over Chrysler, sucking every last dime out of it and using those profits to bolster Fiat, the Italian automaker whose reign as a perennial joke in this business goes back multiple decades.
(One of the first things I said after Marchionne was gifted Chrysler was that it was a grandiose scheme to turn the down-on-its-luck automaker into Fiat North America. I only wish that weren’t true now.)
In Brent Snavely’s piece in the Detroit Free Press today (4/29), the true measure of Sergio Marchionne’s purpose in life is exposed for all to see. Gifted Chrysler by the U.S. Government and funded on the backs of you and me, the U.S. taxpayer, Marchionne is now using Chrysler to sustain that miserable excuse of a car company called Fiat.
The Italian automaker – and that term should be applied very loosely in this case – is on the ropes. Paralyzed by a byzantine network of unions, plagued by serial incompetence (except for its show pony Ferrari division, of course), and buttressed by a relentlessly inept Italian government that manages to make our current bumblers in Washington look like direct descendants of our Founding Fathers, Fiat is now officially on the U.S. taxpayers dole, thanks to Sergio and his grand little plan. Every last dime of Chrysler’s profitability is now being used to prop up Fiat, an industry embarrassment that should have been left for dead long ago.
Think about that for a moment.
People - and the computer screen-stained vampires in our esteemed media, of course - like to get all upset about the bailout of General Motors and love using the pejorative term, “Government Motors.” But the bottom line in this discussion is that what’s going on in Auburn Hills is far more egregious. Marchionne basically sold the Obama administration a lasagna-stuffed bill of goods in order to guarantee Fiat’s financial future once and for all, figuring a free cash infusion would make The Great Sergio a living, breathing Italian legend and reduce Chrysler to pawn status in the quest to save Fiat from certain doom.
But as with anything in life there are complications, and Marchionne knew that his boldfaced carpetbagging scheme would have some uncomfortable exposures down the road. That’s what his carefully orchestrated “savior” image campaign and manufactured “man of the people” persona was designed for, it was supposed to kick in and mask a multitude of sins, allowing him to skate under the radar and get what he wanted.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to his burgeoning sainthood, because now Sergio’s End Game – and his blatant mercenary tendencies – is coming to the fore, and it ain’t pretty.
First there was the recent debt financing maneuvering, as Sergio knew that he was in desperate need of additional cash so that Fiat could buy the rest of Chrysler outright. He was confident, of course, that this was just a process and that he would smoothly emerge from it unscathed and without incident, like a six-inch “gimme” putt. Then again things don’t always go as planned when it comes to propping up a loser car company like Fiat. Bankers handing out billions tend to look deeper than most, and every time a new layer of Fiat’s dismal outlook is revealed new questions are asked. Especially with the dismal outlook of the European market.
But that’s only one dimension to this mess.
The other dimension to Sergio’s little problem has to do with the amount of cash that Fiat will need to buy out the VEBA (Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association), the UAW’s retiree health care trust, which holds 41.5 percent of Chrysler.
Here’s how Snavely summed it up: “A complete merger could give Fiat access to Chrysler’s cash, which it does not have now. But Fiat wants the VEBA’s stake for as little as $4.7 billion, based on its offer for 3.3% of Chrysler’s shares. Attorneys for the VEBA have estimated the entire stake is worth as much as $11.5 billion, Reuters reported, citing documents filed in a Delaware court after Fiat sued the trust.
That $6.8-billion gap is a big deal for more than 63,000 UAW retirees who are depending on the VEBA to cover some of their medical costs.
At the end of 2011 the VEBA had assets valued at $8.8 billion compared with $13.8 billion in total benefit obligations, according to a court filing. The less Fiat pays, the more likely the VEBA will have to reduce benefits.”
Or, as Credit Suisse analyst Eric Hauser was quoted in Snavely’s piece, “You have got a situation where about 65,000 Chrysler employees are subsidizing about 150,000 Fiat employees. This is a situation that is absolutely not sustainable.”
Not sustainable: Two beautiful words that have never stopped Sergio before, or entered into his mind for that matter. From the moment he strolled into Washington, D.C., with his pants pockets turned inside out and his hand out, Marchionne has demonstrated an uncanny ability in relieving the U.S. Government and We, The Taxpayers of our money.
And lest you think the General Motors situation is far worse remember that GM, despite its past financial stumbling, is still an American-owned company. And the undeniable fact remains that Chrysler is now an Italian-owned company that was acquired through the largesse of the U.S. Government and the American taxpayer.
And since he flat-out absconded with Chrysler and its assets when the Obama administration basically had a gun to their heads, why wouldn’t Marchionne think he could get the rest of Chrysler’s financial stake for somewhere less than $.50 on the dollar?
It’s clear that Sergio Marchionne isn’t through holding up America, Inc. for more cash. Not by a long shot. And it’s also clear that Sergio is absolutely convinced that he will get his way, yet again. But I for one hope that cooler heads prevail and more than a couple billion pounds of flesh are extracted from Marchionne’s hide in this case.
Chrysler – along with the talented True Believers in Auburn Hills and its long-suffering dealers - deserves to survive and thrive on its own merits.
It doesn’t deserve to be a pawn in this carpetbagging mercenary’s game of ego gratification.
And it most certainly doesn’t deserve to be saddled with the unenviable task of keeping a perennial Italian industrial embarrassment - one that insultingly masquerades as being “Imported from Detroit” - from slipping into oblivion.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
In search of a magically hip bullet (again).
23 Apr 2013 at 10:51am
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Toyota’s luxury-themed division, Lexus, has decided that it wants to join the ranks of the hip and cool. Not content with its bland-tastic, “the cars for people who don’t care about cars” image, Lexus is now going after the young, influential, hip and affluent crowd with a totally different marketing direction and a new brand campaign, complete with a new advertising theme line, “Amazing in Motion” featuring nine-foot mannequin-like puppets (ugh).
Akio Toyoda, scion of the founding family and the guy who’s now running the show at the global automotive giant, is spurring this new directional shift. Toyoda is absolutely convinced that by turning over a new, youthful and hipper leaf, Lexus is just a heartbeat away from achieving automotive greatness - complete with a cool new wrapper.
We should all know the Lexus story by now. Toyota, eager to get a piece of the American luxury market, went after the leaders at the time - Mercedes-Benz and BMW – with a dead-nuts imitation that more closely resembled the Mercedes than a BMW. It was 1989 and no one really gave them a chance, but Lexus redefined what the luxury experience could be at the dealership level, and even though the car – the LS 400 – was a rolling monument to tedium with marginal appeal it didn’t matter. Lexus built one of the most successful luxury brands in the U.S. market purely based on a level of customer service that up to that point was unheard of.
But as successful as that brand launch was, the cars continued to be somnolent sleds, vanilla-themed luxury coaches that were oddly detached from the act of driving. And that was fine, for a while at least. But the competition got a lot better, especially with Audi turning up the wick and even Cadillac manufacturing a new brand aura for itself, and even though Lexus was delivering sales numbers that were still formidable, the brand seemed tired and predictable.
So forays into the performance arena were made, with a line of performance cars developed dubbed “F” to suggest that Lexus could play in the S (Audi), AMG (Mercedes), M (BMW), and V (Cadillac) high-performance luxury game with a lineup of performance models of its own. That didn’t really work either. Sure, they found some customers for these cars, but the brand image didn’t move one iota.
So now Akio Toyoda, the guy who flaunts his gear-headed-ness like a badge of honor, is determined that the Lexus brand image will go from one of purveyors of somnolent sleds to purveyors of the hip and hot.
He turned up the wick with the LFA supercar and now Lexus is poised to introduce the LFA-influenced LF-LC concept to the U.S. market, a car that torched the auto shows with its sheer design presence. And he’s going to use those two vehicles – and their bold new design language – to fuel a renaissance for the brand in terms of image and prestige.
Oh, if it were that easy.
There aren’t enough trendy hipster balls like the one Toyoda staged in the Chelsea district of New York last week for the “new” Lexus that will make a difference. Sure, the design-themed events, those that focus on artists and creative movers and shakers to the detriment of the actual products are fun and get a nanosecond of coverage from the hip-hot media, but they’re like so much marketing cotton candy, offering you a taste that vaporizes before you even have time to think about what just happened. And does anyone in the room (other than the auto journalists invited to cover such events) take anything substantive away about the brand other than it was a good party? Please.
The key word here for Mr. Toyoda is aspirational, which has become the hottest word in auto company marketing circles, especially for the assorted brand champions who aren’t even close to having a whiff of understanding what it really means. He wants Lexus to become a brand that people aspire to, which is exactly the same thing that everyone else is saying to themselves at the other car companies.
I can tell you what this talk sounds like in the marketing department at your average Belchfire Motors (feel free to insert your favorite car company here): “We want to be hot. We want to be hip. We want to be the brand that everyone talks about first. And we want to be different from all the rest. We want consumers to love us, not because we’re eminently likable, but because we do it better than anyone else.”
How is Lexus going to be different? Well, let’s see, by being “Amazing in Motion"? Uh, maybe, if the planets align just so and everything falls into place in a miracle of marketing that stuns the automotive world and ends up rewriting the history books. (But then again that’s like saying Alfa Romeo is going to be selling 75,000 units here in the U.S. market by 2014. Oh, wait a minute, that’s another column.)
"I will personally drive Lexus forward with beautifully designed product that is fun to drive," Toyoda told the crowd last Friday night in New York, according to Automotive News.
Really, Akio, you are personally going to drive Lexus forward? Uh-oh. Where have we heard this before? Sorry to remind you, Akio, but this business is littered with broken-down executives who insisted that they were going to personally change the market or change a brand’s image overnight.
And unfortunately for Mr. Toyoda I can say with a fair amount of certainty that it ain’t happening. At least not anytime soon. It has taken Audi fifteen years of high-level image wrangling to get where they are today and Cadillac is now in its fourteenth year of rejuvenation and they still have miles to go. So if Mr. Toyoda thinks this is going to be a finger-snap transformation, he is going to be bitterly disappointed.
Besides, chasing youth and hipness for an automaker is like chasing candy-striped unicorns, especially when the young and hip can smell image wrangling from a mile away. (And everyone’s doing it, too, including Nordstrom. The ultra-conservative, upscale retailer is attempting to reinvent itself with a new digital campaign "YOUphoria" designed to make the store hipper - and different - to young consumers. Sound familiar? You can see it here, here and here.)
There’s an old auto industry adage that goes like this: You can sell a young person’s car to the older folk, but you can’t sell an old person’s car to the young.
Here’s a tip, Akio: Build great cars. There's no magically hip bullet at your disposal.
And if you want to really reinvent the Lexus image, buckle-up and settle in for the long haul.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
The Lexus "Amazing in Motion" robotic mannequins, coming to a TV screen near you.
The Penalty of (bad) Leadership.
15 Apr 2013 at 10:12am
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Back in 1915, adman Theodore F. MacManus wrote perhaps the greatest piece of advertising copy of all time. Working on behalf of Cadillac, copywriter MacManus wrote the ad, entitled “The Penalty of Leadership” in response to the fact that new advertising from Packard was attacking Cadillac over the reliability of its new V8 Touring and trying to create doubts in consumers’ minds. Cadillac, the acknowledged industry leader at the time, wouldn’t have it and MacManus penned the response in an extraordinary piece of copy that resonates to this day.
The print ad only ran once and it never mentioned Cadillac or its competitors, but it brilliantly expressed what it means to be a leader and the heavy burden that comes with leadership. MacManus began the ad with the following passage:
“In every field of human endeavour, he that is first must perpetually live in the white light of publicity. Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work. In art, in literature, in music, in industry, the reward and the punishment are always the same. The reward is widespread recognition; the punishment, fierce denial and detraction. When a man’s work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes a target for the shafts of the envious few…”
From that point on, MacManus steps on the gas in a dizzying display of knowledge, forthrightness and command of the English language, the entire time relentlessly hammering his point home. But in the midst of writing an eloquent rebuttal to Cadillac’s would-be competitors, MacManus also managed to define what true leadership means for all time. He closed the ad with the following:
“There is nothing new in this. It is as old as the world and as old as human passions - envy, fear, greed, ambition, and the desire to surpass. And it all avails nothing. If the leader truly leads, he remains - the leader. Master-poet, master-painter, master-workman, each in his turn is assailed, and each holds his laurels through the ages. That which is good or great makes itself known, no matter how loud the clamor of denial. That which deserves to live - lives.”
Why am I revisiting this great piece of advertising copywriting? To remind AE readers of what great advertising can be? Yes, I have to admit that may be true, at least just a little. After all, in this nanosecond attention-span world we live in, with YouTube videos dominating everything to the point that the written word seems to be fading from the landscape like pay phones, it’s nice to immerse oneself in a great piece of writing. For me it’s an elixir for the soul.
But that’s not the real reason I’m taking another look back at MacManus’s masterpiece. Because as much as his heroic piece of copy defines what leadership is, there’s a rip-snorting, out-of-touch, blunderbuss of an executive operating in our midst who is rewriting the book on what leadership isn’t.
It has been a l-o-n-g three-and-one-half years since Dan Akerson was gifted the reins of General Motors and if that weren’t insulting enough - given that GM’s pathetically inept Board of Directors basically handed him the job for raising his hand - now we’re being subjected to one of the most calculated “charm” offenses in the history of PR, with the lovable Akerson, aka “Captain Queeg,” as its focus.
GM’s spin-meisters are busy attempting to portray Akerson as the visionary leader taking the company to the Promised Land in a new publicity push that defies credibility at every turn. And it comes, amazingly enough, with a GM PR-created proviso - carefully fed to the media, of course - that Akerson is painfully media shy and that he’s only doing this for the good of the company and that GM has a real story to tell. That’s total, unmitigated bullshit, in case you're wondering.
GM does have a great story to tell but it has absolutely nothing to do with Dan Akerson. As a matter of fact there is such a disconnect between the people who actually are responsible for GM’s rejuvenated product offerings – the True Believers in Design, Engineering and Product Development – and Akerson and his cronies on the GM Board of Directors that it’s as if we are discussing two completely different companies: The one that actually exists in the real live automobile industry and the one that exists only in the darkened caverns of Akerson and his cronies’ minds.
(This fundamental disconnect is so bad that Akerson’s reign reminds me of a third-world dictator, the kind who operates in a hermetically sealed vacuum totally oblivious and dismissive of the realities of day-to-day life that the rest of the country’s people have to deal with.)
The disingenuous thing about this new image push is that Akerson loathes the media with every fiber of his being and he detests the very idea that there are people out there who actually get paid to ask questions and who are not the least bit interested in doing his bidding.
It’s totally anathema to him, in fact. After all, Akerson comes from the relentlessly vacuous world of Private Equity, a planet filled with people who fancy themselves as benign crusaders for the public good, nothing less than behind-the-scenes advocates for the Big Idea, the do-gooders – as it were - for corporate America, when in fact they’re more akin to corporate parasites that prey on companies either on the way up or on the way down, waiting to pump up their worth or strip them bare and eventually flipping them for the pure profit of it all, one way or the other. Not that there’s anything wrong with turning a profit, but they do this without compunction or consciousness, utterly devoid of any worries or concerns that might guide their ship near the planet of Do the Right Thing.
And seeing as the Private Equity legions like to fancy themselves as quick studies specializing in parachuting in to a given industry, quickly assessing the situation and then making their go/no-go decisions as quickly as possible, the results, as they say, vary. Remember what happened when Cerberus decided they were going to save Chrysler and the U.S. automobile industry? The result was a frickin’ disaster of major proportions, one that ended up almost eradicating the company.
And here comes Dan Akerson with the same mindset, the same sensibilities – or more specifically the lack of any to speak of – and the same quick-draw, “I’m smarter than anyone here” attitude. He is relentless in his cluelessness, which is outrageous to contemplate and depressing to see play out within the confines of the company. There’s no amount of PR that can conceal the sheer, uninspired banality of Akerson’s so-called “leadership” either. It’s no wonder that there are two GMs.
And given his background it’s no wonder that Akerson bristles at the temerity of some reporter questioning him or calling him out for something that he did or didn’t do. In Akerson’s mind these people are mere irritants, just like the people who work for him who have the balls to question his logic – such as it is – when he’s trying to grasp an automotive issue that he has no clue about but nevertheless remains steadfast in his convictions that whatever he thinks must be right.
In his mind Akerson is the Supreme Leader of all he surveys, a gifted shaman forced to bring sense and sensibility to the hinterlands where the moribund domestic auto industry resides, smack dab in the vast wasteland known as the “flyover” states. But to everyone else – especially the disheartened souls forced to work for him - he is the living, breathing, modern-day embodiment of The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Applying the term “leader” to Akerson is an insult to those who have come before him in this business and who have excelled in the role and others who are leading in their respective professions now. Devoid of even a shred of relevant experience, Akerson careens around making knee-jerk and just flat-out bad decisions with a hubris that’s simply awe-inspiring in its desultory maliciousness, in effect employing leadership of the worst kind: By gunpoint.
As I’ve said previously, this isn’t a territorial knock about “an outsider” running a Detroit-based automaker, because that argument is nonsensical and obsolete. This is about having a gut feel for the enterprise, a sensitivity and understanding of what’s going on – and why – and a healthy respect for the lessons learned along the way.
You’d think that a Naval man - of all people - would have a fundamental respect for those historical lessons, but no, Akerson not only ignores history when it comes to the auto business, he abhors it. How else can you explain his belief that you can cut your way to prosperity? Or that he should be granted the respect akin to someone who actually has registered meaningful achievements in this business, and is outraged when it doesn’t happen?
To make matters worse, Akerson’s propensities to throw around war analogies speak to his skewed take on what leadership actually means. His “Ol’ Blood and Guts” bombast and belligerent demeanor are not charming and instead his countless foot-in-mouth pronouncements peg the “wince” meter at every turn. And it displays tone-deafness on his part that is ill suited for an enterprise on the scale of GM, or any company for that matter.
As I said last August, Akerson’s style has been an absolute disaster from the beginning. He’s alienated his own troops from the get-go and continues to do so on an almost clockwork-type basis. He and his PR handler rail at his critics in a quixotic joust against windmills that either aren’t there, or that stand in defiance of their juvenile posturing as a matter of course. And after all of that, is it any wonder that their latest charm offensive – which is desperately trying to portray Akerson as a decent enough, "aw, shucks" kind of a guy just trying to do a job for his people and the country – is falling flat? I don’t think so.
And here we are nine months later being subjected to yet another cringe-inducing attempt at spinning Akerson’s image to the business world and beyond, and the (albeit painful) High-Octane Truth about the situation is that the more we’re exposed to the cocky tyrant, the worse it gets.
There he was in Washington jawboning our third-rate politicians with his so-called command (cough, hack) of the business and of GM, looking and sounding for all the world like a used carpet salesman who got off the wrong bus. Then there was the drive-by on CNBC. And then he went over to Europe to reaffirm GM’s unending quest to fortify Opel to the tune of another $5.2 billion, assuring anyone who will listen that it was absolutely necessary for GM and that it will all come good in no time.
Along the way he let loose with his usual stream of idiotic comments that portray such a relentless naiveté about this business that it is nothing short of frightening. He heaped derision on GM’s former Hummer division describing the SUVs with this witty epithet - "they were an abomination" - in an excruciatingly long speech/interview at the London School of Economics last week.
(For the record, GM’s Hummer division usurped Jeep’s once-dominant position in the ultimate off-road image business in just four short years. And if it weren’t for the fact that the economy tanked and the Green Intelligentsia – fueled by Washington’s armchair car executives during the bankruptcy proceedings - decided to crucify Hummer as being “Evil” and “Satan’s ride” forcing GM to abandon the brand, we might be looking at an entirely different automotive landscape right now. Today’s Jeep has nothing that answers what the Hummer H4 could have and would have been. When GM jettisoned Hummer it also deleted a profit center with huge long-term potential, especially in Russia. But then again Dan Akerson wouldn’t have a clue about any of that. The sum total of his automotive knowledge rests on the head of a pin.)
But Akerson wasn’t through, oh no. Then he called the Chevrolet Volt "probably the best thing since night baseball" and droned on that if GM dropped the price from $40,000 to $5,000 people would be flocking to it. Huh? That’s like saying if the new Cadillac XTS were dropped in price from $60,000 to $10,000 there would be one in every garage in America. This stuff would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic. I get that Akerson is hopelessly inept at off-the-cuff conversation, but even when he tries to be “with it” he comes off like a complete buffoon. And this guy, this guy is CEO of one of the world’s biggest corporations?
It’s a flat-out embarrassment.
In another column last August I said that it’s as if Akerson takes his “give me five minutes and I will know more about your business than you do” quick-study executive M.O. to extremes, believing his instant widget assessments to be accurate and unimpeachable. And he has been proved wrong, time and time again. His constant harangues about blowing up the bureaucracies and fiefdoms within GM have validity, but I get the sense that Akerson doesn’t understand what that really means, especially when he lumps in his product development folk when it comes to assigning blame.
And as I reminded everyone last week, Akerson, the scowling, churlish Captain Queeg-like Private Equity refugee who runs roughshod over everyone and everything in his path on his way to becoming The Savior for General Motors – in his own mind, at any rate – is a shortsighted dilettante who thinks he can cost-cut GM to prosperity and get out from under the “Government Motors” tag in one fell swoop.
As anyone in this business knows, it doesn’t work that way. But then again there’s no reason to believe that Akerson would even begin to grasp that concept anyway. When you’re an “Accidental Tourist” of a CEO who was handed GM on a platter, one devoid of even a shred of relevant experience or the foggiest of instincts as to what this business is all about, fundamental concepts are irrelevant. Besides, Akerson thinks the entire automobile business was a joke before he arrived and he has zero respect for his own people, or anyone who came before him in the business for that matter.
It must be excruciatingly mind numbing for the employees of GM to have Dan Akerson as their titular leader, especially for those in the upper echelons who have to endure his juvenile posturing while he insists that he’s come to know more about this business in three-and-one-half years than they’ll ever know.
The Penalty of Leadership is that to lead – really lead - is difficult, all encompassing and relentlessly never-ending. Setting the tone for the rest of an organization is defining and challenging, but it is absolutely essential in order to maintain the kind of focused consistency that leads to success. There are detractors just itching to knock leaders – and leading companies – off of their lofty status, but true leadership makes withstanding those onslaughts much easier.
Having grown up in this business I have seen talented leaders who have demonstrated acumen for the job that was indeed awe-inspiring to see. Sharp, gifted, energetic and magnetic in their personalities to boot, they inspired people to do their best and to strive for excellence at every possible opportunity. And they’ve never been forgotten, having left indelible marks on this business that will remain historically significant and relevant for generations to come.
And I have seen bad leaders too. Conspicuously awkward, relentlessly arrogant and hopeless in their cluelessness, these people were so maliciously inept that they ground their companies and the people who toiled for them into the ground with a jackbooted certainty that left those companies decimated for years afterward.
And Dan Akerson is one of them.
Smugly arrogant for no reason, steadfast in his refusal to listen to anyone, and relentlessly dismissive of this business and the people who bring value to it, this guy is the very definition of bad leadership. An unctuous prick of stupendous proportion, Akerson’s merciless Reign of Terror at the helm of General Motors will be written about in the media and studied in business schools for years to come as the quintessential definition of how it’s not done.
Saying that Dan Akerson is the defining example of the wrong man, at the wrong company, at the wrong time isn’t exactly prophetic, because he’s only the latest in a long line of massive disappointments that have wreaked havoc on this industry. But having to endure yet another withering charm offensive about this relentless hack is beyond tedious.
I feel for the hard-working and talented True Believers at GM as I’m thinking about the day-to-day chaos Akerson is creating by his poor decision making, because these are the calls that will negatively affect GM’s competitiveness in a market that has zero tolerance for good enough.
And the ugly reality of the situation is that the Penalty of (Bad) Leadership is destined to cripple this company for years to come.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Can Cadillac get there from here?
9 Apr 2013 at 10:15am
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. After driving the new Cadillac XTS for a week (see our review in “On The Table” – WG) I found myself thinking about Cadillac - the brand - and wondering what was next for GM’s luxury division. Most people within and outside this industry who concern themselves with such things are aware of Cadillac’s journey by now. GM’s luxury show pony during its late-50s-early-70s heyday, Cadillac started to lose its way in the mid-70s, just as the German road stars from Mercedes and BMW started to make a serious run at the U.S. market.
And what did GM and Cadillac do to respond to that challenge? They got greedy with the brand, adding dealers and pumping up the volume to the point where any specialness left – admittedly slim at that point – was buried in 10-foot-high Day-Glo “SALE” lettering on their dealerships’ showroom windows. Dealers got fat and happy as profits rolled in, but the looming train wreck that would be brought on by out-of-touch products was just around the corner.
Added to that burgeoning nightmare was GM’s response at the time to the German luxury import incursion, the ill-fated and deservedly maligned Cimarron, a gussied-up Chevy Cavalier with Cadillac styling cues that laid such an egg in the market that it almost killed the division’s brand image for good.
But enough of that. That was then and this is now. Fourteen years into a calculated reinvention/rejuvenation, which involved embracing the German luxury car idiom note-for-note with a little American swagger thrown in for good measure, Cadillac is on the upswing. Newly impressive products, including the all-new ATS, the aforementioned XTS and with another all-new CTS on the way, have the brand firing on all cylinders again. These new models are noteworthy and to a large degree either approaching being dead-nuts competitive with select Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes models, or getting there, as in close.
With that said, however, where does Cadillac go from here? Is it really going to pursue the German automakers to the very end, or is it going to redirect slightly and embrace and project an American design point of view, taking historical lessons from the dominant Harley Earl–Bill Mitchell GM Styling era and translating them into today’s cars?
I think it’s pretty obvious that the latter has taken hold of Ed Welburn and his GM design troops. The new Cadillac models are crisply rendered and boast a distinctly American design flair. And it’s working. It has taken a decade and a half, but with each new model Cadillac’s design language becomes more a part of the American landscape. The look is contemporary, yes, but even more important is that Cadillac isn’t following anybody when it comes to its design aesthetic, its designers having carved out a distinct point of view that will burnish its brand image going forward.
But what about that brand image?
Cadillac lives in a strange retail landscape where its “traditional” buyers – the ones with the money – are rapidly fading to black, as in dying off. And as much as Cadillac marketers want to cling to these buyers as long as they possibly can, it’s readily apparent that their future lies in engaging a totally new buyer, one with a completely different mindset already heavily influenced by the impact of the luxury European brands in this market.
The recent television advertising campaign for the ATS, which flaunted a globetrotting, go-for-it perspective, is exactly what I’m talking about. Aimed squarely at buyers who wouldn’t even think of considering an American car, let alone a Cadillac, it at least moved the needle in the right direction for the brand.
Interestingly enough, there was much internal hand-wringing over these spots after the fact. Certain execs inside GM chafed at the cost and vowed that the “episode” wouldn’t be repeated (a residual legacy from the Joel Ewanick era, with GM marketers consumed by the idea that anything the former CMO touched had to be purged from the company. Juvenile and ludicrous, but we are talking about a Detroit car company after all).
Which, when you really dissect it, is patently absurd. Cadillac marketers need to orchestrate high-concept spots like that for Cadillac every year, because that’s the only way they’re going to accomplish a shift in consideration for the brand.
Look at Audi. Perpetually riding the coattails of BMW and Mercedes, Audi brand overlords set about repositioning the German luxury make fifteen years ago. They believed that Audi belonged at the head table and they vowed that they would get it there by establishing a positioning of technical superiority. How? By winning at the 24 Hours of Le Mans – the world’s most prestigious endurance race - which they’ve done eleven times in the past thirteen years.
Has it worked? Well, I should say so. Audi not only has bludgeoned the competition at Le Mans, it has raised its product game considerably at the same time and is not only at the head table, it is now considered by many in the industry as being ahead of BMW and Mercedes.
If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times in this column, but it takes a focused consistency over time to accomplish what Audi has done. And it’s within this context that GM and Cadillac marketing overlords have to consider their next moves as well.
The reality is that Cadillac needs to completely walk way from its established customers - which I define as anyone who came to the brand before the first-generation CTS made its debut – in terms of marketing. The people out there in ConsumerVille who have lingering positive feelings for the brand will still show up, but it’s the new customer to the brand that Cadillac must attract and aim all its marketing efforts toward.
Back to Audi. The brand has spent upwards of $100 million on its racing program every year. That’s over and above its considerable marketing and advertising spending. And GM marketers should be prepared to spend at least that much on advertising if they want Cadillac to be considered anything but one of two American luxury brands playing at the periphery of The Game.
I listen to the pronouncements from GM and Cadillac marketers and it’s clear that they not only think they belong in The Game, they actually believe they're going to succeed. That’s laudable because after all, everyone should have a plan and a goal. But they’re not there yet, not by a long shot. And the more they talk the worse it actually gets, because they’re not fooling anyone.
Yes, the Cadillac product portfolio is growing more impressive with each new model but as we discuss in our comments on the XTS, they still stumble with the fundamental details. And that is just flat-out unacceptable.
But the real issue is that I don’t believe GM as a company has the guts to really crank up the spending machine and properly nurture the Cadillac brand in a way that would get them even close to the head table.
Certainly not as long as CEO Dan Akerson is involved. Akerson, the scowling, churlish Captain Queeg-like Private Equity refugee who runs roughshod over everyone and everything in his path on his way to becoming The Savior for General Motors – in his own mind, at any rate – is a shortsighted fool who thinks he can cost-cut GM to prosperity and get out from under the “Government Motors” tag in one fell swoop.
As anyone in this business knows, it doesn’t work that way. But then again there’s no reason to believe that Akerson would even begin to grasp that concept anyway. When you’re an “Accidental Tourist” of a CEO who was handed GM on a platter, like he is, one devoid of even a shred of relevant experience or the foggiest of instincts as to what this business is all about, fundamental concepts are irrelevant.
Besides, Akerson thinks the entire automobile business was a joke before he arrived and he has zero respect for his own people, or anyone who came before him in the business for that matter, so how the hell can we expect the GM brain trust to develop a consistently focused plan for Cadillac? Especially one that involves vast expenditures of major-league, image-wrangling money each and every year?
I’ll have more on Akerson’s Reign of Tyranny and GM next week. In the meantime, credit the True Believers at GM in Design, Engineering and Product Development who have gotten Cadillac this far. At least they’re on the road pointing in the right direction.
Can Cadillac get there from here?
It’s still a giant “we’ll see.”
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
The Autoextremist Guide To Auto Industry Terms, Part IV.
2 Apr 2013 at 5:22pm
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Statistical analysis has never been my thing, but I have noticed of late how it has swept through Major League Baseball in a big way. Baseball, that solemn game so well and truly mired in historical statistics, is taking it to a new level, according to The New York Times, with stats such as B.A.B.I.P. (Batting Average on Balls in Play), WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) now coming into play in obsessive fan discussions.
Although those statistical acronyms mean nothing to me (I’m a football guy, for Vince Lombardi’s sake), they obviously mean a lot to the aficionados of baseball who just can’t get enough of the minutiae that is such an inexorable part of the game.
But it did get me thinking about the automobile business, however, and there are acronyms at play every day in the biz that I’d like to share with you today. And even though this update of our Autoextremist Guide to Auto Industry Terms doesn’t involve much statistical analysis, rest assured these terms deeply affect this business every day.
BFI. This is where people are sent after going down in flames due to some inglorious episode that they just can’t hide from. It could be anything from a high-visibility project that goes BURG (see below) to a glaring mistake, the point being it was so egregious that even the fiefdoms and the compartmentalized bureaucracies couldn’t save them. Not to disparage Idaho – a beautiful state by the way – but, California would seem like a reward, so what are you going to do? You screw up bad enough and this is where you’re going to go - BumFuckIdaho.
BURG. Every once in a while a product plan, an advertising campaign, a marketing strategy or even a career gets so derailed that it can’t be saved. Now this may occur by corporate inertia (a Legendary Force that consumes all in its path, see below), but it usually involves blatant incompetence, a dumb idea gone bad, or someone making a horrendously bad call at the most inopportune time. Thus, it gets Blown Up Real Good. Also used as a verb, as in “Jake was buried so deep into that miserable excuse for a marketing plan that he ended up getting BURG’d.”
CI. As referenced above, no, not another new crime procedural on TV, Corporate Inertia is the irresistible and Legendary Force at work in these companies that serves to render otherwise brilliant ideas and programs utterly rudderless and ineffectual. Corporate Inertia has been the bane of every good idea throughout automotive history, whether it was product related, a marketing idea or a bold advertising campaign. And it’s still very much alive and well today. I’ve seen brilliant marketing strategies get parked in the CI Twilight Zone again and again. I’ve seen breakthrough ad campaigns get muzzled and neutered by wave after wave of meetings, all designed to reduce the original idea down to a nub of inconsequence. I’ve watched exceptional product programs get pummeled as CI reared its ugly head and reduced them to forgettable examples of lowest-common-denominator thinking. I’ve seen it all when it comes to Corporate Inertia, one of the biggest enemies to success these car companies face on a daily basis. And it’s as potent as ever.
CYAAYBA. The ever-popular phrase “cover your ass” is surely a staple in corporate America and one not confined to the automobile business by any stretch of the imagination. But the expanded and more specific CYAAYBA for Cover Your Ass And Your Boss’s Ass is very much alive and well in the auto biz. When I refer to the vast gray middle at these companies, and the intransigent fiefdoms that are entrenched throughout this business, it starts with legions of people who strictly adhere to the laws of CYAAYBA. As a matter of fact I wrote about this phenomenon in the very first issue of this publication. These people get up every day and ask themselves two key questions: 1. “What do I have to do to cover my ass today? (And do as little as possible while doing it, of course.) And 2. “What can I do to make my boss look good? (So I can keep my head down and coast for another year with minimal effort.) The CYAAYBAers wreak havoc in this business every day. Unfortunately it’s still rampant, even after the near-death experiences of The Great Recession and the giant bankruptcies.
FBs. Another obvious one but still used effectively at the most appropriate times, simply because it’s a go-to phrase that never gets old. Insert Frickin’ Bozos in any number of declarative statements and it works perfectly. As in, “We’re trying to do a milestone car here, one that will redefine this brand for generations to come, and purchasing is going to shit-can this interior over a five-dollar trim piece? Frickin Bozos.”
NIH. Yes, an old-school reference, but Not Invented Here is still an insidious disease in this business. You’d think it would be the hordes of CYAAYBA minions who would be expert at this nonsense, but in fact it’s the director-level schmoes who are the most egregious offenders. These maliciously incompetent managers will pass on outside input of any kind – even though it would help the company compete on equal footing with rival automakers – in order to protect their small-minded fiefdoms. The most virulent purveyors of anti-success in the car business, the NIHers paralyze these companies with their steadfast adherence to “the way we’ve always done it” – to the detriment of everyone and everything else.
SSA. Slip Sliding Away is a favorite term used by engineers and designers as they watch upper management screw-ups and Corporate Inertia relegate their potential “hit” product programs to the dustbin. Common usage, “Yeah, it was lookin’ good until it went all SSA at the last minute.”
PATHETIC. Just as it seems, but oh so much more, PATHETIC stands for Pissed-off At The Hordes Engaged in Turning It into Chaos. The Hordes, in this case being the countless bad actors embedded throughout an auto company’s organization who add absolutely nothing to the process, who are relentlessly negative to boot and whose net-net contribution to the proceedings is slightly north of negligible.
These hordes can suck the very life out of a company, and when you add in Corporate Inertia, the CYAAYBAers and the NIHers, what are you left with?
You guessed it, chaos.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Gearing up for the New York Auto Show.
26 Mar 2013 at 12:13pm
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. The New York Auto Show, if nothing else, signals that spring is nigh, or something like that. With the L.A. Auto Show a distant memory, the Detroit Auto Show harboring lingering resentment and bitter disappointment for those who missed a golden opportunity to do better and the Chicago and Geneva shows duly noted, the New York Auto Show – though smack in the middle of one of the most hostile environments for automobiles on the face of the earth – is a harbinger of better times ahead for the industry, or at the very least better weather.
I’m not suggesting that the people who attend the show or the auto enthusiasts who reside in the New York area don’t enjoy the show and love their cars as much as anyone, because as I noted a year ago, they most definitely do. As a matter of fact I consider them to be some of the most committed auto enthusiasts in the world, just because of the mere fact that they have to enjoy their passion while negotiating some of the meanest of mean streets in the land.
But after attending myriad auto shows over the years, I must say that I’ve refined my carry-in gear to a few carefully developed essentials. I’m not talking about the usual array of electronic devices, because those items are a given and everyone has their individual preference. No, I’m talking about an elaborate array of devices that I have honed over the years, to the point where I can finally talk about them – sort of like allowing AE readers access to classified files that haven’t been declassified as of yet. So, here we go…
1. The Autoextremist Bullshit Detector. Yes, it’s the much-whispered-about, often-rumored, highly secretive and devastatingly effective micro-sized device that is embedded in an undisclosed location on my person. It could be in the lapel of my jacket, it could be in the frame of my glasses, or – as often rumored – it just might be a chip that has been inserted in my brain. I will never tell, but I can assure you that it is very much present and accounted for.
Featuring two settings – one for unmitigated and the other for unforgivable – it allows me to detect half-baked, delusional and certifiable crazy-town executive speeches from 50 yards away.
In the beginning, long ago and in a galaxy far, far away, when a sense of optimism for the industry still floated in the air like a warm spring breeze, the detector was much more forgiving, with a measure of slack built in that made allowances for the rookies, the relentlessly challenged and the simply overmatched. It even had a special setting for German car company executives, who exist in a parallel universe all their own.
Now? It operates with the precision akin to our most sophisticated unmanned aircraft. Laser-focused and able to detect the worst offenders from across a show floor, the AE Bullshit Detector blows up at a typical auto show like a Teen Queen’s phone after a bad romance. And it’s easy to see why, what with industry executives rumbling, bumbling and stumbling their way through fanciful, delusional speeches filled with hubris and wrapped around promises that can’t possibly be kept.
2. The Autoextremist Smarm Meter. A developmental offshoot of the AE Bullshit detector, the Smarm Meter has unique capabilities and sensitivity settings that can differentiate between a car company executive who has simply gone off the rails, and an Amway meeting. Smarminess happens to be a virulent strain of behavior at most auto industry gatherings, but at an auto show it is particularly cringe worthy.
As industry executives and their attendant entourages work the show floor in a backslapping frenzy made up of equal parts hubris and self-aggrandizement, you can almost see the smarm-generated haze trail behind them. It’s usually most apparent when an industry executive is enthusiastically regaling the media with all of the darn good things happening at his or her company, sounding for all the world like a game show host while everyone in the room knows their Belchfire-8 sales are clearly in the tank.
And unfortunately, as most people in this business know, there really is no antidote for it either. It’s like an intransigent fog that settles over the proceedings like a heavy wool coat caught in the rain.
3. The Autoextremist Asshole Repellant (spray, cream & lotion). No, not an electronic device, but we have developed this product by mutating strains of agave nectar and blending them with a trace of Knob Creek. We don’t pretend it can eradicate the rampant asshole-ism awash in the automotive world, but it can render an offender senseless with just a handshake. Formulated for backstabbing PR weasels, smarmy, start-up company self-promoters, the legions of hubris-fueled executives roaming the show floor and particularly effective against blatant assholes masquerading as Important Auto Journalists, the AE Asshole Repellant offers a welcome respite from the organized cacophony that makes up a modern day auto show.
4. The Autoextremist Time Compactor. We take particular pride in this device because it amazingly shrinks interminable 27-minute auto industry press conferences down to cogent 3-minute sound bites delivered right to our smart phone. The AE Time Compactor conveniently eliminates the over-zealous industry prognostications, the blatantly optimistic sales figures, the endless drivel about "It’s a new day at (insert car company name here)," while removing the bullshit and the relentless smarminess for good measure. Indeed, a handy tool if there ever was one.
Now, for all of you out there interested in obtaining any or all of these devices/products, let me just say I’ve been begged, pleaded with and cajoled, but they’re simply not for sale.
As we like to say around here, they’re simply “unobtanium.”
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week. (And oh by the way, happy next Monday.)
19 Mar 2013 at 11:47am
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. GM and Chevrolet are about to embark on a journey that may just determine the division’s health in the U.S. market for years to come. The new 2014 Chevrolet Impala is not just another car introduction for GM, because the car means so much more than that. At the very least the new Impala represents the hopes of True Believer enthusiasts within and outside the company for a rejuvenated GM and Chevrolet that so far has materialized just in their dreams, and only intermittently in reality.
It also represents The Future to The Suits (Dan “Captain Queeg” Akerson and his Merry Minions, plus the CEO’s sycophants on the GM Board), because they envision a GM that will be strong and powerful once again. And even if this “vision” doesn’t translate into an understanding of what makes for a successful product, they understand the money that can be generated by one.
The problem for Chevrolet is that they’ve allowed the Impala to languish in a limbo of mediocrity for so long that convincing the American drivers “out there” in ConsumerVille that a new Impala is exactly what they want - even though they don’t know it yet – will be an extremely tall order.
Since this business seems to ignore history as a matter of course, deeming it unnecessary and irrelevant in these instantly connected, nanosecond-attention-span times, it’s important to remember that the idea of a hot mainstream Chevrolet was once integral to GM’s success.
In GM and Chevrolet’s heyday, the Impala represented everything good about the then-dominant company. It was stylish, it offered excellent and in some cases outstanding performance, and it delivered exceptional value. In short, it set the standard for the entire industry and consumers bought them in droves. But as is GM’s wont, when it started its long slow slide to oblivion, its operatives forgot what the Impala meant to the company and to the market. And they bastardized it, screwed it up and even worse, just plain ignored it to the point that it became an afterthought.
Yes, Chevrolet loyalists will point to certain spikes in the Impala product cycle over the years - including the most recent example - but at the end of the day they’re just kidding themselves. GM and Chevrolet simply took their eye off of the ball and allowed the Impala to become “pretty good” and “not bad” in a world of competitive superlatives.
Think of all the diversions Chevrolet took over the years instead of promoting the most glorious product name this side of Corvette. Desultory names like Beretta. Corsica. And Lumina. That last one really rankles me. Think of all the years GM and Chevrolet pissed away on the Lumina, and for what, exactly?
The Lumina was a momentary blip on Chevrolet’s historical timeline, yet it consumed hundreds of millions of marketing and product development dollars that could have and should have been spent on a proper Impala, but basically went for naught instead. It would be simply pathetic if it weren’t so infuriating and it’s just another example of another blown opportunity in a long line of blown opportunities that have fueled GM’s downward spiral.
And guess what? Remember “the big idea” that the bankruptcy would fix GM once and for all, that once it broomed multiple divisions its executives would be able to focus on its core products, which would translate into immediate dividends in the market?
It simply hasn’t worked.
Why? Let’s take Chevrolet, for example, the division that for all intents and purposes stirs the drink for the rest of GM. Chevrolet is so busy chasing its tail within its own divisional structure that it can’t get out of its own way. What are Chevrolet marketers featuring, exactly? Is it the Cruze? Oh no, wait a minute, this week it’s the Sonic. Or maybe the Spark. No, check that, this week the marketing crisis of-the-moment revolves around the Malibu.
Captain Queeg’s obsession to move the intro of the revised Malibu up a year ago combined with an albeit rare miss by GM Design (seems that grafting the ass-end of the Camaro on an otherwise mediocre design effort for a sedan didn’t work. Who knew?) has caused the Malibu to languish in the market like a ship adrift at sea - listless and forgettable. And now there’s an all-hands-on-deck effort to refresh the Malibu again while shoring up the current car in the market.
In other words it’s a hot mess. And all of this flailing about has cost Chevrolet and GM serious market share.
And adding to GM’s swirling maelstrom of marketing chaos, the launch of the 2014 Impala is now imminent.
Is the new Impala a strong entry in the market? Given what I know and what I’ve seen of the car, it certainly should be. It has all of the classic ingredients that made Impalas of the past great, and it looks damn good in person to boot. The True Believers in Design, Engineering and Product Development have made sure that the new car lives up to the great product attributes from the nameplate’s past, while firmly planting the Impala flag in the market as a contemporary entry worth considering.
And that is a significant assessment for a lot of reasons, because when it comes right down to it the Impala is The Franchise for Chevrolet and thus, GM.
Yes, the new Corvette is tremendous (for the most part) and Chevy has a brace of new small cars yipping at the market too. And let’s not forget GM’s new pickup trucks due in the fall, which some within GM would argue are the real “Franchise” in terms of profitability. (But, given that the new trucks are eminently forgettable in the “looking new” department, these people may be in need of a serious attitude – and reality – adjustment, “Like a Rock,” or no.)
If GM marketing were firing on all cylinders, I would expect that the 2014 Impala would come out of the gate smokin’. That unfortunately is a very big “if” because I have zero confidence that they’re up to the task. Especially with GM stumbling around trying to make the Malibu worthy again.
GM simply cannot afford another passenger car that does “just okay” in the market. It needs a real live, take-it-to-the-bank product hit. Not one that does well for the first six months, either, but a sustainable success that grows more solid in the market by the year.
The new 2014 Chevrolet Impala has to perform nothing short of a miracle for Chevrolet and GM. It has to reestablish the idea that a desirable mainstream Chevrolet can transcend demographic data and become a genuine hit in the market.
In other words anything less than a grand slam, out-of-the-park home run will prove to be disastrous.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
The 2014 Chevrolet Impala LTZ.
12 Mar 2013 at 9:04am
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Last week a $3.9 million Lamborghini Veneno (one of three) appeared at the Geneva Motor Show, as did a million-dollar, almost 1,000-horsepower Ferrari, with the ridiculous name of “La Ferrari” (if this is THE Ferrari, what comes next?), and a $900,000 McLaren P1 with 900+ horsepower. Supercars with 0-60mph times of three seconds, or less. Top speeds comfortably over 200 mph. And these vehicles represent just the tip of the suddenly flush global supercar segment.
Part of me says that more horsepower and more speed is a good thing and for those who can afford to indulge, then so be it. Exotic supercars bristle with advanced technological developments in materials, aerodynamics, hybrid systems, powertrains, suspension, brakes, tires, lighting, etc., many of which eventually end up finding their way into our mainstream cars in some way, shape or form down the road.
So from that perspective manufacturers pushing the envelope with these fantastic machines are not just engaging in a vanity exercise, they’re exploring next technologies in demonstrative ways.
But then again part of me is extremely disappointed with what’s going on.
We are now entering a Twilight Zone of million-dollar, 1,000HP machines that are able to deliver speed and performance far beyond the capabilities of 99 percent of the drivers who end up owning them. And for what, exactly? So they can have a memorable arrival at Prime One Twelve in Miami Beach? Sadly, that’s exactly what most of these machines end up being used for, as supercar show ponies for the more-money-than-sense crowd.
That said I think it’s time for a new idea. I believe that the manufacturers should be pushing the supercar envelope in a more futuristic direction, because the fact of the matter is that any manufacturer can throw money at a supercar program and dial up a jaw-dropping performer. If a manufacturer has a target retail price of $850,000 to $2 million, it can put ingredients into a hopper and come up with a 1,000HP monster that would rearrange a driver’s facial structure every time he or she put their foot in it.
But is it the smart thing to do?
At this juncture I would argue, no, because I believe manufacturers need to resolve the high-performance equation in a different way. In short, I’m calling for a redefinition of what a supercar should be.
As I said, manufacturers are perfectly capable of throwing vast quantities of money around to develop a supercar. But what if, instead of the coterie of $1 million supercars we’re seeing now, we had a new wave of supercars designed around the elegant simplicity of an advantageous power-to-weight ratio?
“Simplify, then add lightness,” famed Lotus designer Colin Chapman once said. Known for his visionary racing and street car designs, Chapman exploited the concept of an advantageous power-to-weight ratio time and time again, often resulting in brilliantly innovative – and winning - solutions that made history.
A supercar based on the concept of exploiting an advantageous power-to-weight ratio would do wonders to advance the cause of our future mainstream automobiles. And even though the current supercar manufacturers can point to the strides made in reducing the weight of these new high-performance machines – especially McLaren – the fact remains that redefining the concept entirely would result in even more gains.
Let’s take power, for instance. Instead of the usual gamut of V6s, V8s and V12s, I’d like to see these next wave ultra-high-performance machines powered by smaller displacement 3- and 4-cylinder engines of no more than 2.0-liters delivering 300-350HP. With that – and thanks to their lightweight (2100 lbs.) specification target - these machines could deliver blistering performance close to the current stable of ultimate supercars, while using demonstrably less fuel.
Redefining the supercar equation would allow auto manufacturers to translate lessons learned from these radical next-think supercars to the vehicles we will eventually drive too. Imagine the average 4,000-lb. luxury sedan weighing in at 3,000 lbs. Or a crossover that formerly weighed 5,000 lbs., tilting the scales at just 3,500 lbs.
Ask any automotive engineer of any stripe and he or she will tell you that exploiting an advantageous power-to-weight ratio will be the key to meeting the aggressive future fuel mileage standards as established by the EPA, while maintaining a modicum of acceptable performance. That last phrase is key by the way because it’s one thing to meet future mileage standards, but it’s quite another to deliver machines that are actually fun to drive while doing so. High-mileage cars that meet the new standards but that can’t get out of their own way will never be the answer. Consumers won’t buy them, period.
What could manufacturers do while aiming to do an ultra-light supercar? Let’s take Honda, for instance. Much has been made of the new Acura NSX sports car coming in 2015 but I can only imagine what that car would have been like had Honda really gone for it and had made an even more radical statement in terms of pursuing an ultra-lightweight architecture. Don’t get me wrong, because the new NSX certainly looks to be a worthy effort, but I expected Honda to push more and to deliver more, so a more radical, super lightweight NSX would have been just what the company needed to underline its stated and ongoing mission of recapturing its mojo.
And how intriguing would a next-think Corvette supercar from GM be with a radically lightweight architecture? Or how about a super lightweight take on a new Ford GT by Ford? As a matter of fact the two remaining domestic manufacturers would be ideal candidates to redefine the supercar concept, and they have just as legitimate an opportunity to do so as any other manufacturer.
But that would not only take real vision, it would take the guts to execute to that vision and, of course, the cash investment to pull it off. Then again there’s more to it than that. There has to be an ingrained philosophy within a company that truly rewards pushing the envelope. An environment that is comfortable in going where others fear to go. To zig while the others zag.
And it requires more than just the True Believers in a company in order to do those things. It requires a fundamental understanding and desire at the very top of the company in order to compete, especially when it comes to the business of building radical, lightweight supercars.
(I will say one thing about the current manufacturers of supercars that deserves applause, and that is that their corporate philosophies clearly recognize that pushing the envelope doesn’t pertain to an occasional product program, but to the way they conduct business on a daily basis. That remains a fundamental difference between the auto companies that are switched on, and everyone else.)
In saying that, I’m reminded that once upon a time in this nation the pursuit of speed was a noble quest. Whether it was soaring into cobalt blue skies to record-breaking heights or racing through the 200-mph barrier at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, America was on an upward trajectory and the notion of going faster, higher and longer filled a need for a nation hungry to push the envelope and to well… just go for it.
We were a nation of blue-sky dreamers where “no limits” and “everything all the time” was part of the deal. And it fit the American spirit perfectly.
And then things got weird.
We collectively headed down the slippery slope of average in just about everything. The idea of pushing the envelope, taking it to the limit and striving for excellence was too often abandoned in favor of a pathetic lament of “well, at least you tried” – resulting in a numbing cadence of underachievement that stifled and shrouded the once-exuberant American spirit in a dense fog of mediocrity.
Especially when it came to building cars.
And it has taken the U.S. automobile industry years to right itself and get back on track after decades of mediocrity (punctuated by a few shining beacons of hope along the way, of course).
So why couldn’t now be a perfect time for the two remaining American-owned car companies to enter an arena dazzled by million-dollar, 1,000HP, 200mph+ wonder sleds with a brand-new idea for a lightweight supercar that redefines the notion of what a supercar is and can be once and for all?
Light, razor sharp, fast and efficient supercars bristling with bright ideas and new perspectives. In short, concepts that push the boundaries of thought and take the idea of a “supercar” in an entirely new and radical direction.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see one of The Last Two just go for it and shake up the supercar world once and for all?
Add lightness indeed.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Editor-in-Chief's Note: Re-imagining the supercar? James Glickenhaus is doing it right now. The man behind the modern day Ferrari P4/5 by Pininfarina sent the following note to us (see below). We can't wait to see the finished product. - PMD
Our next road car adventure has begun. Our next one-off will be along the lines you talk about.
Our goals are 1600lb, Twin-Turbo V6 with about 500HP, much simpler and a very beautiful "Three Wing" design where the three wings are integrated into the shape. The cockpit and door's operation will be a bit like the Modulo (concept car).
This one will be a lot smaller; about the size of a Dino Competizione vs. the Ferrari P 4/5 by Pininfarina.
Carbon fiber chassis and body.
SCG (Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus) will be the constructor and its name is P 33.
We plan to unveil it at Geneva in 2015.
New York, New York
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