The Latest Auto Extremist
THE OVERHYPED. THE OVERBLOWN. AND THE OVERRATED.
14 Aug 2017 at 6:29pm
Editor's Note: So, The Autoextremist says he's tired (exhausted is more like it), and there is clearly more to be tired of than ever before in this business. This week, things reach a fever pitch with events leading up to both the Woodward Dream Cruise here in Detroit and the monument to all things automotive that is the Monterey Peninsula in August and its crown jewel, the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. To that end, this week's Rant continues the ongoing theme of all that is wrong with the car enthusiast craze these days - and there is much to lament. (And don't miss Peter's take on the latest from Acura and Infiniti in "On The Table.") It is impossible not to be cynical about the sorry state of so much that defines the business today. But it is also impossible not to be awestruck by a car that is jaw-droppingly beautiful or outrageous or crazy or just plain cool. Weird, right? No, it's one of those "don't hate the player, hate the game" things. Because no matter how bad things get, there is always one more car we've never seen before, one more car to turn our heads, one more car to make a memory. And that's because we absolutely love, love, love cars. -WG
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Since my column last week (“Tired. Not Tired.”) seemed to have struck a nerve and is still jangling about the Autoverse, I have become even more aggravated with the state of the so-called car "thing" as it exists today. But it’s not just the current sad state of the OEM kaleidoscope that’s frustrating. No, it's clear that the car enthusiast culture - or what's left of it - has been overrun by con artists, spineless weasels, clueless marketing twerps, greed merchants, poseurs and too many (but not all) in the media who display more go-along-to-get-along, "Thank you, sir, may I have another" cheerleading than your average Big Ten home game in the fall.
Where is it all going? Nowhere good, I'm afraid.
Just this past week we were subjected to the site of normally rational (at least for the most part) auto “journalists” foaming at the mouth because FCA operatives staged a media preview of its “Roadkill Nights,” which allowed the carpal-tunnel-challenged to do real live “burnouts” in Dodge Challengers, Chargers and of course the Demon, as if this required a level of skill heretofore unknown to contemporary life.
In case you need to be reminded, “Roadkill Nights” is a creation of FCA that shuts down Woodward Avenue in Pontiac on the Saturday before the “Dream Cruise” so that legal drag racing can take place on a very abbreviated strip of asphalt. People can pay their money and drag race on the track, and a good time is had by all. Except it was an organic “happening” the first year when it was held in the parking lot at the abandoned Pontiac Silverdome, and somewhat novel the second year when it was relocated to Woodward, but it was by the third year – this year – when various forms of motorized “entertainment” were added and FCA leveraged everything they had to market their line of muscle cars, that it was played out.
That the media – both auto and otherwise – was completely enthralled by doing burnouts is beyond me, but they dutifully played into the FCA PR minion’s hands by positively gushing over everything having to do with “Roadkill Nights.” I couldn’t quite understand it, unless of course they signed a release beforehand stating that they must surrender all credibility at the gate before entering. It was that bad.
I’m sure FCA operatives are slapping themselves on the back this week as they celebrate the marketing “coup” they pulled off on behalf of their muscle car lineup, except that it’s only indicative of the woefully warped bubble they’ve created for themselves. Marketing a lineup of muscle cars with extremely narrow appeal to an audience of smoky burnout enthusiasts is nothing more than preaching to a choir that’s getting smaller by the day. But hey, since Sergio is about to sell out to the Chinese lock, stock and barrel (as Peter has predicted for years. See this week’s “On The Table” –WG), maybe the prevailing attitude out in Auburn Hills is that they simply don’t give a damn anymore.
But I digress. I’m going to talk about three things in this business that are overhyped, overblown and overrated. Things that need to be singled-out, dissected… and hammered.
1. Fear and Loathing at “Monterey Car Week.” I’m unhappy to report that right this minute there are shiny happy auto marketing troops out in Pebble Beach patting themselves on the back that they're present and accounted for at Monterey Car Week, even though the research gleaned and goodwill bestowed on prospects amounts to a giant bowl of Not So Much. As for the few brighter lights at the car companies who realize that the million-dollar bills they accrue at Pebble Beach really don't add up to much of anything quantifiable, they're unfortunately offset by the marketers who are whining because they aren't there and who can't wait to get out there next year. So the cycle is likely to continue.
“Monterey Car Week” has become an an excellent indicator that luxury automakers and their marketing troops are completely out of ideas when it comes to marketing their wares, and you only have to look as far as the week of over-the-top events going on right now on the Monterey Peninsula.
The relentless, ever-present din that hangs in the air out there is defined by the drunken spending among the luxury automakers and unremarkably enough, the way they go about it has the stench of sameness attached to it that in the end makes it indistinguishable from one brand to another. It’s the same luxury accoutrements, the same rote regurgitation of “luxury” words and phrases that are mumbled in an interchangeable soundtrack from brand to brand, and the same platitudes and cloying familiarity that blend together in a dismal cadence of vacuousness that goes by like a blur of marketing cotton candy, a fleeting sugar rush of pseudo substance followed by the inevitable crash of emptiness.
Yet automakers drop, collectively, at least a hundred million dollars like clockwork out in Monterey every year. Why? Because, as I’ve stated before, the lingering question hanging over the marketing troops isn’t “Maybe we ought to reevaluate this whole thing” but, “What happens if we’re not there?”
Which isn’t exactly an answer that makes a lick of sense, now does it?
2. The calculated feeding frenzy manufactured by the auto auction houses has decimated the fundamental enthusiasm that used to define car enthusiasts of all stripes. There, I said it. The whole auto auction game has graduated from being merely tedious to a threat to car enthusiasm itself. Speaking of something not making a lick of sense, the fevered business surrounding auto auctions has come to define the car “hobby” for a lot of people, which is a very bad thing. Why? Because it’s not about the cars anymore, or the fleeting moments in time that defined what those machines represented, or the memories they created for the enthusiasts who drove them. No, it’s about flat-out greed, pure and simple.
Whether it’s resurrected cars over-restored to perfection or “survivor” cars brokered “as is” it’s really all the same. It’s a circus of artificial enthusiasm marked by overheated auction hucksters in cahoots with the blatant sycophants at the TV networks who all do their very best to add to the faux cacophony, which is only punctuated by the projected “record” dollar figures that seemingly get attached to every car. (The usurious buyers’ and sellers’ premiums are barely mentioned.)
Car auctions have destroyed the last vestige of rational thought that was once associated with being a car enthusiast. In fact, rational thinking when it comes to the car enthusiast experience was steadily reduced to collateral damage years and years ago by the “greed merchants” at the auction houses. And it really stinks.
As if to emphasize the point, in the last few weeks we have received an unending series of come-ons from the auction houses that tout the latest and greatest cars, all of which are pegged at absurd bid levels, and it frankly leaves me cold. There is no excitement generated by these communiqués, just a gloomy emptiness hanging in the air over machines that once brimmed with passion and creativity, but are now relegated to marks on a ledger, which will count toward a tally that will be used to promote next year's installment of the circus.
This tedious drill went far beyond the "Fools and their money..." adage well over two decades ago. These machines are paraded on stage - souls removed - only to end up in antiseptic, "perfect" garages until they're prepared for another auction down the road. This isn't about the car culture or the sheer passion once associated with these automobiles; no, now it's the living, breathing embodiment of Greed is Good.
3. And last but not least there’s our very own “Dream Cruise,” the annual car happening in August that went from being a spontaneous celebration of the automobile to an event wearing a leaded cloak of marketing sameness as orchestrated by the manufacturers and suppliers. Yeah, it’s really too bad, but the High-Octane Truth about the Dream Cruise is that it simply doesn’t ring true anymore, as unpopular as that notion might be with some around here. The spontaneity that once bubbled up organically in the early years has been replaced by manufacturer displays, manufacturer “drive-bys” (the novelty of 50 cars of the same make driving up and down Woodward Avenue was never, ever, cool - trust me), and a rigid sameness that is as predictable as the local media coverage of the event, which is nothing but a regurgitation of the last decade’s worth (at least) of stories.
The Dream Cruise has been overhyped, overblown and overrated for years, just like Monterey Car Week. I reserve particular ire for some of the card-carrying members of the local media who fall over themselves trying to pump up the volume on the latest edition, when a sameness hangs over the proceedings in a giant haze of "we've seen this all before, right?" Then again, when the local media collectively defines the term journalistic “homers” it should be no surprise at all.
The drill is the same every year. The manufacturers and suppliers mark their territories along Woodward Avenue, which means any anticipation is missing in action, with the whole thing having been reduced to an annual dirge of predictability. Is this really what this business has come to in the "Motor City"? Is this "celebration" of our car culture the best we can do? I certainly hope not, because it has all of the spontaneity of the grim "back to school" ads polluting the airwaves right now.
So, at the end of this discussion a giant question remains. Is the car enthusiast thing a lost cause? Are we really going to slink off and wait for autonomy to put us out of our collective misery once and for all? Not by a long shot, thankfully. But those three aforementioned subjects should force everyone to take stock and remember the following very important points.
You have to love the car business. Well, let me rephrase that. Some of us immersed in this seething cauldron of runaway egos, shortsightedness, intermittent brilliance and, remarkably enough and against all odds, indomitable spirit, love this business. (Then again, when it comes right down to it, it depends on the day.)
We love it for the unbridled creativity demonstrated by its True Believers, who keep stepping up to the plate and swinging for the fences. We love it for the relentless 24/7 churn – and associated weariness - that it entails (even though everyone complains about it, they wouldn’t have it any other way).
We love it for the brief shining moments when an exceptional design or product advancement emerges to remind us all of what turned us on about the business in the first place, even though those moments are fleeting, at best.
But then again and truth be told, we love to loathe it too. It can’t be helped. We despise the carpetbagging mercenaries who seem to rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune moments to wreak havoc on this business. Oh, you know who I’m referring to, that “Murderer’s Row” of malicious connivers, "Minimum Bob” Nardelli, “Captain Queeg” Akerson and Sergio the “G.O.A.T.” just to name a few.
We cringe at the legions of spineless weasels that populate almost every corner of this business, the go-along-to-get-along hordes and dutiful, sniveling minions who project a positive demeanor but who wallow in serial, abject mediocrity at every turn. That part of the business is always depressing and tedious, there’s no doubt.
But yet, we press on. And for good reason too.
Yes, the overhyped, overblown and overrated aspects of this business, which we loathe, aren’t going away any time soon.
But fortunately the fundamental enthusiasm displayed by the True Believers and everyday enthusiasts alike who still like – make that love – everything to do with the automobile isn’t going away any time soon, either.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
TIRED. NOT TIRED.
8 Aug 2017 at 9:37am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Since the pitchfork-wielding Muskian hordes came out of the woodwork taking great umbrage with last week’s column because I deigned to be critical of St. Elon, I was half-tempted to re-run it this week just to piss them off all over again. Blind adulation is never a good look in my book, but the cessation of rational thinking is even worse. And I’m tired of the deification of Elon Musk and seeing normally rational people succumbing to selective insanity as Musk careens around hawking the Model 3 for $35,000 when in fact buyers won’t be able to touch one for much under $50,000. As I wrote last week, it’s a classic case of “bait and switch,” a term that’s as old as the car business itself, but since it’s Musk, and everything surrounding him gets lost in a calculated PR-generated Fog of War, I coined it as “allure and ascend” to be more in line with Muskian sensibilities, because after all, St. Elon wouldn’t use classic carnival barker smoke-and-mirrors to actually dupe his followers, would he? Right.
If Ford or GM pulled half the stunts Musk has pulled there would be Congressional investigations as to why those companies are allowed to even exist. Meanwhile, while Musk is “Waiting for Godough” – he’s seeking $1.5 billion so he can begin the “Production Hell” of the Model 3 – we’re going to have to endure his act for the foreseeable future. Lucky us.
I’m also tired of the fact that the Chevrolet Bolt isn’t getting its due as a real, live fully electric car that’s extremely well-executed and available right now, but instead is ignored because it’s perceived as not being hip enough. Make that Muskian enough. The combination of a botched launch, a failure by GM marketing and PR to sing the Bolt’s praises far and wide, the aforementioned Fog of War orchestrated by Musk himself, and the complicit media hordes perpetuating the notion that everything he touches turns to gold, has almost buried the Bolt once and for all before it even has a chance.
Remember last week when Consumer Reports set a range record of 250 miles with the Chevrolet Bolt – the farthest distance achieved in the magazine’s testing of electric vehicles - including any Tesla model? Yeah, I didn’t think so. With the media tripping all over themselves touting the Model 3, even though significant production won’t ramp up until next year, how would anyone know that the Chevrolet Bolt is the best electric vehicle you can buy in terms of range? GM is scrambling to wrap the outstanding Bolt vehicle architecture in other models and sexier shapes, but here they find themselves under the gun, again. I’m tired of that too.
But then again I’m getting tired of a lot of things having to do with this business.
I’m tired of GM management insisting that they have it goin’ on when it comes to marketing, when in fact just the opposite is true. They keep rearranging the deck chairs on the S.S. Mediocrity hoping for a better result, and nothing ever changes. Mary Barra and Dan “I am” Ammann are directly culpable in this, too, because they believe that the divisions can take care of it and it’s not necessarily “a corporate thing.” And they’re dead wrong. No one has done less with more when it comes to marketing than the stumblebums at GM. It isn’t even close, in fact. The lack of seasoned marketing leadership is a glaring and continuing liability for the company.
Shifting gears, I’m tired of the constant stories about the UAW finally making a push to organize yet another southern plant – in this case Nissan’s Canton, Mississippi, plant – only to blow another opportunity to smithereens. Did the ongoing FCA-UAW corruption investigation hurt? Absolutely. And the revelations from the looming investigation and trial are going to get u-g-l-y and highly embarrassing for all concerned. In one fell swoop the UAW was viewed as being the same as it ever was and there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of it breaking through to organize that plant. The UAW is so entrenched in a different era that its constant bleating about what it’s going to do and how good it’s going to be has fallen on deaf ears. The UAW has the stench of indifference enveloping it. And this isn’t a temporary condition, either. It’s full-on destiny.
Speaking of stumblebums, when Hyundai first started touting its Genesis brand, I was actually optimistic about its prospects, particularly the G90, which had all the makings of being a formidable threat to Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Cadillac and Lincoln. The G90 has real design presence on the road, it is executed extremely well, and its price point, fully equipped, is thousands less than its competitors in some cases. But Hyundai management has blown the Genesis launch so badly that they’re having to retrench, regroup and start over. A year ago I was convinced that the Genesis luxury brand had 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 the 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?
Now, according to Automotive News, Hyundai management has decided that selling $70,000 Genesis models in Hyundai showrooms wasn’t such a great idea and it’s really not working out. Wait, it never occurred to them that selling Genesis models next to Hyundai economy cars might not have been the best idea? Who knew? So Hyundai managers are embarking on yet another plan to reorganize the dealers, this time moving to Genesis-exclusive showrooms, a plan that will come to fruition – maybe – by the second half of next year. But I wouldn’t count on it.
As I said in my Autoextremist Brand Image Meter column last June, there’s no use telling Korean auto executives what to do. They know absolutely everything there is to know about absolutely everything. Which I would imagine gets old if you're trying to make a difference there what with the overlords changing their minds every six months. The High-Octane Truth is that Hyundai's notoriously shortsighted, impetuous thinking is on full display with this Genesis mess. The company makes strategic and product decisions in fits and starts, which turn into mistakes left and right, then it plays the blame game – bad managers (usually American) acting badly, changing market conditions wreaking havoc, rogue dealers being uncooperative, sunspots, etc. - because, well, you know, it's never their fault. This just in: Yeah, it is. And Genesis is officially a Lost Brand until further notice.
I’m tired of the BMW and Mercedes-Benz product planners continuing to try to put 100 pounds of product in a 25-lb. bag. Both of these manufacturers are guilty of egregious oversaturation in their product lineups, covering niche upon niche - both real and imagined – and contributing to the degradation of their brand images in the process. Once upon a time these two automobile companies aimed at segments they knew they could compete in with extraordinarily strong entries, showing a willingness to take the long view in order to burnish their reputations. Now? They throw around “M” and “AMG” badges like popcorn, thinking that they can make anything, slap a badge on it, and someone will buy it. In ancient times every one of the product entries from these two automobile companies was notable and worth a look. Now? I would estimate that barely 50 percent of their models are worth a serious look. The rest are overweight, overwrought and pure, unmitigated marketing crap.
And finally I’m tired of the overall tone and tenor of the business right now. I’m tired of hearing that we’re on the precipice of profound change when in fact this business has its future pretty much laid out for it for the next ten years, at least. The headlong rush into autonomous vehicles is a train everyone’s jumping on, even though no one actually knows where it’s going or understands how long it’s going to take to get there. I view even the most conservative predictions about the onset of autonomy to be wildly optimistic, and some of these companies are going to get caught out, big-time. And this is me not feeling sorry for them.
And electrification is real, but how much and how fast? The eagerly accepted vision of a utopian all-electric automotive fleet is a full-on pipe dream, as the internal combustion engine has a long, long, way to go in terms of even more efficient development and its longevity. And guess what? The massive infrastructure investment needed to support electric vehicles – imagine every single gas station in the country having to add quick-charge electric vehicle islands in order to cover 25 percent electrification of the U.S. market - is simply staggering. And we’re not there yet. We’re not even close, in fact. And it’s not happening anytime soon either.
So yeah, I’m tired of the bullshit, I’m tired of the repeated mistakes perpetuated by people who should know better, I’m tired of the fundamental intransigence, and I’m tired of the relentless adhering to hoary irrelevance that plagues this industry at every turn. But I’m not tired of doing this website, and I’ll never get tired of calling out the hucksters, the con artists, the spineless weasels, the recalcitrant twerps, the card-carrying hacks and the new “messiahs” trying to shove their act down our throats.
In fact, I’m just getting warmed up.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
THE GREATEST PR SHOW ON EARTH.
1 Aug 2017 at 8:12am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. Trying to wade through another hurricane of hyperbole generated by Tesla, this time over the “soft” rollout of the Model 3 was almost too much to bear last week. I have never read more unmitigated bullshit in my life, whereupon actual adults who should know better regurgitated more superlatives in a single sitting about a car that has some seriously questionable issues – at best - than I thought even possible.
You have to understand that The Cult of Elon perfectly mirrors everything going on in the bountiful confines of Silicon Valley right now. The New Masters of the Universe love to gorge on superlatives, and Musk is one of the self-appointed Ringmasters, all puffed up with enough arrogance and hubris to last a lifetime, actually several lifetimes. So much so that his acolytes almost wet themselves every time he deigns to utter one of his pronouncements.
And the Model 3 is his latest rolling pronouncement. It’s the car that will finally bury Detroit. The car that is so forward thinking that if you’re not on board with “the movement” you will not only be hopelessly out of touch, you will be deemed as being expendable and inconsequential. And even worse, you will be denied access to The Enlightenment, the secret sect made up of the sniveling followers who call themselves “Muskians” – reports that they chant “Yesla! Yesla! Yesla!” in private have not been confirmed – and who are granted an occasional up-close glimpse of their Master and allowed moments – albeit fleeting – to bask in his brilliance, so that they then go off and weep quietly in the corner, unable to handle the thrill of it all.
To the Muskians – and many of the “journalists” in attendance at the Model 3 announcement party were, in fact, card-carrying members of the sect – the Model 3 was so breathtaking that normal words were just incapable of conveying its brilliance. “Oooooh, but it’s a premium car!” seemed to be the common refrain among the Muskian apologists who covered the event. Wow, really? I imagine Horse and Hound was there, given that seemingly every two-bit, addle-brained “lifestyle” journalist spent most of their time regurgitating the hype handed out by the Tesla PR minions word for word. In fact, there were so many breathless superlatives being bandied about that I lost track of them. You had to have a strong constitution to stomach the gushing “reporting” that went on about the event, about the car, and, of course, about The Genius his own self, who is really what all of this was about. And I won’t even bother to get into the verbal stupidity unleashed in the comment sections of virtually every article published about the Model 3. It was so disgustingly abhorrent and illogical, it’s clear that everyone got hit in the forehead with a 2x4 and was summarily robbed of all rational thought.
But let’s review, shall we? 1. In reality the Model 3 will cost a good $15,000 more (at least) than the originally projected $35,000 MSRP because of well, you know, the necessary add-ons (long-range battery, $9,000; nicer interior, $5,000; any color other than black, $1,000, etc.). Because it’s Elon, however, it’s not “bait and switch.” Oh no, it’s “allure and ascend.” As in, if you want to be allowed to ascend into The Enlightenment and bask in the glow, you have to fork over more cash. Capisce?
2. After the 30 Tesla insiders get the first cars, the Model 3 won’t be available in any sort of volume until sometime in 2018. But let’s be very clear about this one very significant point: Tesla has demonstrated – emphatically so, I might add – that they are serially incapable of building cars with quality at any sort of production pace that’s worth noting. And yet The Master insists that they will be punching out 500,000 Model 3s per year in no time. As if. There is no conceivable scenario extant where this will actually happen. The Muskians may not care about the projected volumes, but real people do, and the notion that this company, which can barely crank out the model lineup it has, will all of a sudden flip a switch and be cranking out a half a million cars with competitive quality levels is simply absurd and unimaginable.
3. There’s the little thing about the government tax subsidy running out before buyers can even get the Tesla 3, as in, oops. And 4. Even if Musk could build 500,000 Model 3s a year – don’t worry, he can’t – the fundamental lack of dealers will paralyze the entire operation.
So there you have it, folks. The short story of the Model 3? At least the one that was spun by The Cult of Elon? It’s transformative. It’s magic. It’s so much more than a car, and so much more than anything else that even resembles a car that it will change your life. For good.
No, I will tell you what the Model 3 is. It’s a testament to the fact that “Detroit” – aka the U.S. auto industry – collectively lost the PR war a long, long time ago. I wrote about this in my book Witch Hunt, which chronicled the bailout and subsequent bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler. Remember those Senate hearings when the CEOs of what used to be known as the “Big Three” were bludgeoned for hours? The recurring theme was that Detroit built crappy cars, the CEOs were stupid and the whole damn enterprise was collectively an embarrassment. I distinctly remember one Mitch McConnell piling on the CEOs and the U.S. automobile industry for being incompetent and worse in a withering display. The High-Octane Truth? Less than eighteen months before, that same Mitch McConnell was in Detroit with his hand out at a dinner organized on his behalf asking for, you guessed it, donations from the automobile companies. (But then again, if I were to go after the practicing scumbags in Washington we’d be here all frickin’ day.)
The point is that the lingering hangover from those hearings and the pain of the subsequent bankruptcies has never gone away. It doesn’t matter that Detroit is part of the industrial fabric of this nation. It doesn’t matter that Detroit was essential in creating the “Arsenal of Democracy.” It doesn’t matter that the auto industry based here has been one of this country’s leading technological centers and still is right now (something that Silicon Valley has found out the hard way). It doesn’t matter that the U.S. auto industry (for the most part) is building the best cars in its history, some truly outstanding machines, in fact. What matters is that for a burgeoning group of consumers in this country – led around by the nose by the card-carrying Muskians in the media – the U.S. auto industry is inconsequential. And worse, it simply isn’t cool.
We have arrived at a point where everything about Tesla = Good. And everything about Detroit = Irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that The Cult of Elon has robbed people of all rational thought. It doesn’t matter that for many Tesla owners the reality of ownership has them mired in a quagmire of mediocrity and poor quality that would shutter other companies. U.S. automakers represent a kind of Old School that a growing number of consumers don’t care about anymore.
Example No. 1? The Chevrolet Bolt is a real production car that offers everything most people want in a fully electric car without the wait. But consumers don’t care. Why? Because GM blew the introduction of the car. They adhered to Old School Detroit marketing think and thought that the humble, hat-in-hand approach was best because, well, they couldn’t offer them across the country and well, you know, they were doing the right thing. The result? An unmitigated disaster. An absolutely stellar engineering job by the True Believers at GM utterly wasted. Can you imagine if St. Elon was shilling the Bolt? It would be the greatest thing since sliced bread and GM couldn’t make them fast enough. But because Mary Barra and Dan “I Am” Ammann don’t think having a CMO is necessary and they fundamentally don’t understand what real marketing is to boot, the Bolt – a really excellent machine, by the way – is left withering on the vine. It’s simply unconscionable. And depressing.
And finally, as if we needed yet another reason for people to heap derision on the U.S. auto industry, the news that some jamoke executive at FCA colluded with a senior executive from the UAW to skim cash away from a work training initiative funded by FCA in order to fund lavish lifestyles is just icing on the cake. This story is going to blow up like a fireworks barge on the river of Not Good, and it’s going to be yet another black eye for this business. No, you can’t make this stuff up, unfortunately.
No wonder a guy like Elon Musk can rule the media landscape with a car that’s as much a state of mind than anything else. The Cult of Elon is the Greatest PR Show on Earth, and don’t you ever forget it.
As for Detroit? Ah well. Despite big profits and some great cars, Detroit has been back on its heels for the better part of a decade. The only PR the Detroit auto companies know is bad PR. As in nothing is good enough, or grand enough, or hip enough.
And in a media world dominated by Muskians spinning the golden yarn, that makes Detroit perpetually yesterday’s news.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
ON DEMON FRENZY, SMOKY BURNOUTS AND THE FOG OF WAR.
24 Jul 2017 at 12:08pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. I must say, every time I think some in the automotive media can’t stoop any lower I am reminded yet again that oh yes, they can stoop lower than I previously thought was even possible, so much so in fact that at this point the bar has been lowered – and buried – about two inches deep in the ground.
The latest blow to the automotive media’s credibility has been on full display over the last week as certain esteemed (cough, hack) members of the media fell all over themselves gushing about the new Dodge Demon.
Now before all the muscle heads out there raise their pitchforks in outrage, let me make something very clear about what the Demon is, and isn’t.
The Demon is a factory hot rod created by the True Believers out in Auburn Hills aimed at such a micro segment of the auto enthusiast population that it would barely merit a mention outside of the old-school, drag-racing-oriented prospects it is aimed at, except for the fact that the FCA “brain trust” – and I use that term loosely – decided it would be a perfect smokescreen to distract the media from the fact that FCA has been teetering on the brink for months and there’s no relief in sight.
So, voila! – FCA honchos and their complicit PR minions decide to court the carpal-tunnel-maimed scribes in the automotive media by portraying the Demon as a showcase of FCA advanced technology, hoping that the tire smoke would obscure all the nasty bits long associated with FCA. You must be fully aware of FCA’s greatest – and ugly – hits by now: the reporting of out-and-out fraudulent sales numbers going back years that still outrages this industry a year after first being reported; the company’s orchestrated – and lethal – subprime financing campaign with its partner Banco Santander SA, which is directly responsible for fueling the next subprime crisis in the auto industry; Sergio’s desperate search for a partner or a buyer so that he and his Fiat heir-handlers can cash out while the getting out is good; etc., etc. And of course the ongoing Alfa Romeo fiasco, which is now just a blatant embarrassment mired in the fact that FCA is perpetually incapable of building anything with quality, no matter how good the vehicles look on paper.
Added to this litany of woe is the fact that sales of Marchionne’s heretofore Golden Calf – aka the Jeep franchise and the raison d’etre for his wildly optimistic valuation of the company – have now cooled, big-time. In fact Jeep is spinning its wheels in the market right now, much to Sergio’s chagrin and burgeoning panic.
So sure, why not assemble the gullible automotive media and immerse them in the Fog of War generated by smoky burnouts on a drag strip in Indianapolis? And then why not sell them on the fact that the Demon is living, breathing proof that the company does, in fact, have it goin’ on? They’ll buy it, right?
Except that it’s all unmitigated bullshit. The Demon isn’t a testament to FCA’s advanced technology, it’s a testament to the True Believers in Auburn Hills who worked on it, and their ability to come up with a backroom project using time-honored hot-rodding principles on a ancient, bloated platform and somehow make it all come together enough to build 3300 cars (including 300 in Canada) that will go real yee-hah fast. That the car has no business being sold without a roll cage and that FCA is getting away with offering a missile launcher to anyone out there willing to spend $86,000 on one (not counting the dealers who are asking $75,000 for the “privilege” of buying one) is beside the point.
And damn if FCA didn’t get what it wanted. The accounts by “journalists” who apparently have had little experience with driving seriously fast cars were absolutely gushing with praise as they waxed poetically about the awesome Demon, forgetting the fact that it’s an obscure, backroom hot-rod project relevant to absolutely nothing in the real world. The Demon has zero to do with advanced technology, certainly not the kind of technology that might prop up FCA’s fortunes going forward (unless, of course, Sergio is forced to part the company out and Dodge becomes a mighty – but marginal – muscle car purveyor building nostalgia hot rods and police cruisers). In fact, give me a group of talented True Believers from any car company you choose and a set of targeted parameters, whether it’s creating a drag racing rocket or a road racing track special, and those targets will be met. (Kudos to those involved on the Demon project, but it’s more a testament to The Rebel Spirit, which I can appreciate, than it is an example of FCA’s ability to survive in The Future.)
So as the FCA honchos and their chirping PR minions bask in the glory of the ridiculously over-the-top press coverage generated by a factory hot rod with a severely limited shelf life, while savoring putting one over on too many members of the automotive media (I mean, really, several of you should have your credentials lifted, or at least be banned from the next three press junkets for egregious stupidity), the fact remains that FCA is teetering on the brink of oblivion because the carpetbagging mercenary who’s running the joint has played fast and loose with the facts – and has operated in a self-created, egomaniacal parallel universe that has no basis in reality – since Day One.
Demon Frenzy? Nah. It’s just certain members of the media who should have known better being sucked into a Fog of War orchestrated by an FCA hierarchy hell-bent on creating a giant smoke-and-mirrors distraction.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
OUR AMERICAN WANDERLUST IS BEING BURIED ALIVE.
18 Jul 2017 at 11:58am
Editor-in-Chief's Note (July 18, 12:00 p.m.): Into the gloaming. As I’m basking in the unrelenting glow of the sun and suffocating humidity that define mid-summer here in the Midwest, I have been in search of some sort of cheery, glass-half-full pronouncements about the direction that the auto industry is heading in the hopes that it will spur all of us on to a renewed sense of optimism about the future of mobility and the future of this business. And I must admit that I am having tremendous difficulty in doing so. I am absolutely convinced that few of us are really prepared for the burgeoning realities going forward when it comes to the freedom of mobility, or more to the point, what will come to mean the new definition of mobility, because it is going to have nothing to do with the definition that we grew up with. A nation that was fueled by an indomitable can-do spirit, boundless optimism and the primal urge to explore the beckoning, wide-open spaces starting way back in the covered wagon era, and that was then fueled to new heights by the freedom brought forth by the invention of the automobile is now on the precipice of change in the way we move about our planet that will be so profound that I don’t think most of us are prepared for just how dramatic the transformation will be. Will a nation founded on the tenets of freedom and the option to go, and do, and see what we please all of a sudden succumb to groupthink and mindlessly queue up for nondescript, shared transportation devices based on convenience? Are we all just going to gleefully go along for a ride dictated by availability and most frequented "popular" travel destinations? I have a hard time believing that the transition is going to be smooth. In fact we’re in for a very bumpy ride. I covered much of this last March in a column that had resonance then - based on the comments we received - and in fact still does today since we're still hearing about it. So, we're seconding that emotion this week. -PMD
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. In case you haven’t heard we, as a nation, are in a headlong rush to leave everything behind. The Best and The Brightest are feverishly working nonstop on transportation conveyances that remove the driver and the driving from the equation. It will be safer. It will be more environmentally friendly. It will mean less congestion. It will mean fewer deaths by human error and/or incompetence. It will mean more freedom for the elderly and the homebound. And it will mean reduced instances of individual car and truck ownership on a grand scale.
Many view this as a transition that is long overdue. Countless studies seem to appear out of nowhere extolling the virtues of our new transportation reality. Well-intentioned theorists envision a nirvana that will finally free us from the tyranny of the automobile. They insist with absolute certainty that with the costs of ownership being severely reduced, if not becoming a thing of the past, we will simply rent the vehicles we need for a defined duration, and the American automotive experience, as we’ve come to know it, will be well and truly over.
The automobile companies – at least the ones with the wherewithal and the vision - are embracing this New Technological Frontier with varying degrees of savvy, on a spectrum marked by, “We Definitely Know What We’re Doing” on the one end, and “We’re Throwing Money at Anyone Talking a Good Game in Hopes That In The End We Bet On The Right Horse” on the other.
This means the odd sight of senior auto executives lined up for painful photo ops with assorted Boffins of The Moment from Silicon Valley whom they barely know, after laying out hundreds of millions of dollars on the come, and then smiling wanly for the cameras as they mutter to themselves, ”I hope to hell this works out.” Or worse.
Why is this happening? Because the very last thing automobile execs want to be perceived as is anachronistic, old-school, head-in-sand operatives that the Shiny Happy Masters of The Universe in Silicon Valley have left in the dust. You can almost hear the battle cries from inside the executive enclaves at these companies, “We have been an integral part of this nation’s transportation solution for over 100 years and make no mistake, we will be an even more important part of the solution for the next 100 years.” Or something like that.
But there’s a large measure of hand-wringing in all of this, too, and that’s because the auto manufacturers hell bent on this quest to be part of the transportation future know damn well that the vehicles they’re designing, engineering and manufacturing right now and for the next 30 years at least will have to be successful enough – and profitable enough - to power the whims and dreams of this New Technological Frontier, which means that these manufacturers will be forced to do a two-step dance to keep the whole thing afloat. This means continuing to crank out compelling cars and trucks that people outside the touchy-feely – and congested – urban centers actually need for their real lives, while the people reveling in the autonomy of it all can be blissfully free of the nastiness of The Way Things Used To Be.
But make no mistake: this is a train wreck that will unfold in fits and starts. Will there be autonomy and touchy-feely ride sharing that suits a certain segment of the populace? Yes. But how much of the public it reaches on a mass scale and how soon that will all come in to play is pure conjecture right now, and I don’t care what the most optimistic of scenarios say. I’m sure in the 2020s the manufacturers and their Silicon Valley partners will point to isolated demonstrations of remarkable wonderfulness, but for the rest of this nation, it’s going to be a giant “we’ll see.”
For some, namely certain politicians in Northern California and in Washington, this fundamental transformation of our transportation model can’t come soon enough. For those people who view the automobile and the automobile industry and everyone and everything associated with it as a national scourge that needs to be eradicated once and for all - it will be Sweet Victory, a fitting denouement for the filthy automobile, a march of progress that will benefit everyone. For these people the historical context of the automobile has been overwrought and overexaggerated from the beginning, and to finally put paid to the notion of the automobile’s wonderfulness is an accomplishment that they will giddily revel in for decades to come, because for them historical perspective is just old stuff about old, irrelevant people.
But for the rest of us, it will mark nothing less than the end of the American experience as we’ve known it. The automobile is so crucially linked to the industrial fabric of this nation that pretending otherwise is simply impossible to do. The reason the Silicon Valley Overlords have come calling to the collective “Detroit” is that this industry and this area have been this country’s center of expertise in manufacturing, materials and advanced technology for well over a century. The automobile industry has stepped up time and time again to support this nation at its darkest times, with the forming of the incredible “Arsenal of Democracy” being just one notable – and remarkable - instance.
But that’s just one dimension of the impact, because the automobile has played such an inexorable role in creating much of the culture of this nation that it is simply incomprehensible to contemplate America, as we know it, without it.
Every dimension of the American experience has been shaped by the automobile - the roads we used to explore the vast expanses of the unbridled majesty of this nation (and ourselves along the way); the music that provided much of the soundtrack for those journeys, the roadside attractions and the road food that went with them; the big cities and little towns along the highways and byways; and on, and on, and on. (Talk to anyone who has visited The Henry Ford museum recently and see what he or she has to say. In so many words it will sound like this: The American experience is the automobile, and the automobile is the American experience.)
The automobile’s influence on this country’s culture is almost incalculable. But then again it’s even more than that. It’s part of this country’s soul, it’s who we are and it’s where we’ve been and it’s where we’ve always wanted to go. It’s the fundamental freedom of movement and unleashing of the spirit, and it’s the mechanical embodiment of our hopes and dreams.
In short, that distinctly American perspective, that wanderlust for seeing and doing and exploring that was fueled and driven by the automobile for over a century, is being buried alive, right before our eyes. So excuse me when I don’t get excited at The Great Enlightenment that’s coming just over the hill.
I’ll leave you with this: Poet, critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, James Agee wrote the following for the September 1934 issue of Fortune:
The characters in our story are five: this American continent; this American people; the automobile; the Great American Road, and the Great American Roadside. As an American, of course, you know these characters. This continent, an open palm spread frank before the sky against the bulk of the world. This curious people. The automobile you know as well as you know the slouch of the accustomed body at the wheel and the small stench of gas and hot metal. You know the sweat and the steady throes of the motor and the copious and thoughtless silence and the almost lack of hunger and the spreaded swell and swim of the hard highway toward and beneath and behind and gone and the parted roadside swarming past. This great road, too; you know that well. How it is scraggled and twisted along the coast of Maine, high-crowned and weak-shouldered in honor of long winter, how like a blacksnake in the sun it takes the ridges, the green and dim ravines which are the Cumberlands, and lolls loose into the hot Alabama valleys… Oh yes, you know this road… All such things you know… God and the conjunction of confused bloods, history and the bullying of this tough continent to heel, did something to the American people -- worked up in their blood a species of restiveness unlike any that any race before has known. Whatever we may think, we move for no better reason than for the plain unvarnished hell of it. And there is no better reason. So God made the American restive. The American in turn and in due time got into the automobile and found it good. The automobile became a hypnosis, the opium of the American people...
We move for no better reason than for the plain unvarnished hell of it.
Truer words were never written.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
11 Jul 2017 at 11:20am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. In a development that was not unexpected, Cadillac, the automobile company formerly known as the Cadillac Division of General Motors, passed away peacefully last month at the age of 115. With the current Cadillac management overlords at its bedside, Cadillac slipped away quietly, destined for an afterlife as a Chinese car company.
Cadillac, the once-proud American luxury automotive standard-bearer named after Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the founder of the city of Detroit, which was resurrected from the remnants of the Henry Ford Company in 1902 and then purchased by the newly formed General Motors in 1909, led a full and at times vivaciously exuberant and dramatic life, blazing the trail for design and technological advancements that still resonate to this day.
Over the decades Cadillac not only thrived in its role as a technical leader for the automotive industry, earning and adhering to its most famous advertising slogan – “The Standard of the World” - it became an inexorable part of the American lexicon as the symbol for the very best of the best, no matter what the product. It was not uncommon for manufacturers of products of all stripes to tout the fact that they in fact made, “The Cadillac of…”.
With an impact that transcended the automobile industry, Cadillac enjoyed a long reign as an American cultural icon. Even today, in fact just this week, Senator Ted Cruz, while commenting about America’s health care debacle, I mean debate, underscored Cadillac’s indelible place in the American landscape by saying, “If you want to buy a plan with all the bells and whistles, with all of the mandates under Title 1 (Obamacare), you can buy that plan, those plans will be on the market. Those plans will have significant federal taxpayer money behind them. But on the other hand if you can't afford a full Cadillac plan, you should be able to buy another plan that meets your needs. And so the consumer freedom option gives you, the consumer, choice whether to go with the full Cadillac or a skinnier plan that's a lot more affordable…”
The full Cadillac. Think about that for a moment. I daresay that no other automotive nameplate in the world has held such a hallowed place in the American cultural landscape as has Cadillac. Even though the world has changed and competitors from Lincoln and Mercedes to Audi and Lexus have all had their place in the sun and enjoyed varying degrees of success over the years, no automotive nameplate has resonated longer and more brightly than Cadillac.
Yes, there have been down moments for the brand, too many in fact, but it is simply remarkable that the name Cadillac still resonates so strongly to this day.
To be frank, the later years for Cadillac had been difficult. Rejuvenated by a renaissance in its design presence, and bolstered by a newly invigorated engineering point of view, the brand was placed in the hands of a new overlord, one Johan de Nysschen, a talented man of vision with a successful track record of leading Audi to prominence in the U.S. market.
But nonetheless de Nysschen’s plan to remake the Cadillac brand in Audi’s likeness didn’t exactly find favor in this market. Yes, there were exceptions, with the runaway success of the full-size Escalade SUV and crossover-crazed consumers scarfing up the XT5, but the rest of the plan floundered, mired in its Audi-ness. The ATS and CTS were barely treading water, and the technically interesting CT6 was languishing, as if stuck in neutral, while the high-performance offerings, the ATS-V and the CTS-V – though scintillating – were outliers totally unrelated to the brand.
Though de Nysschen’s plan was coldly rational, based on the perceived New World Order overwhelming the automobile business, the glorious historical legacy of the Cadillac brand was ignored, only surfacing in three riveting GM Design concepts – the Ciel, Elmiraj and the most recent Escala. These beautifully rendered design statements bristled with promise, portraying the Cadillac ideal with renewed exuberance and presenting themselves as “influencers” of future Cadillac designs, while boasting emotionally compelling names that were well, somehow perfectly befitting of Cadillac.
Yet that’s as far as it went. Those design concepts, which resonated with automobile enthusiasts far and wide, were left rotting in the sun where all GM Design concepts are left to die, while Cadillac’s in-market models – except for the Escalade – were saddled with Audi-esque alphanumeric nameplates that resonated with no one.
The new reality? Last month it became official: Cadillac now sells more cars in the Chinese market than here in the U.S., and that is a reality that isn’t going to change, in fact it will only pick up speed in the coming years. A sign of the times? Sure, all rational thought simply points to the fact that the Chinese market is destined to be the dominant transportation market for decades to come.
But I see it as the death of one of the most storied automotive legacies in automotive history. And even though the Cadillac office in New York is filled with wonderful emblems and tchotchkes from Cadillac’s past to great effect, none of it really matters anymore.
Will Cadillac still be here? Certainly. But make no mistake, the Chinese market will dictate the future direction and composition of the brand.
I often fantasize that there should be two Cadillacs, the one marked by the coldly generic and unengaging names of the current lineup that would be let loose in China for pure profitability. And the other composed of dramatically breathtaking design statements aimed at this market, “real” Cadillacs blessed with real names that reaffirm the brand’s glorious historical legacy to its core.
Ah well, that is not to be. It’s a Technicolor pipedream of an era long since past. Cadillac has been sentenced to an inauspicious afterlife in China, and there’s no turning back now.
By the way, “Dare Greatly” is depicted in this column’s headline, in case you wondered. And like everything else associated with Cadillac of late, it resonates with exactly no one.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
THE HIGH HARD ONES.
3 Jul 2017 at 9:25am
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. I was going to do a column about this being the halfway point in the year and how little has changed since the Detroit Auto Show last January but the subject was too tedious for words. In fact, it bored me to death. As in why bother with that blah-blah-blah?
This business lives in a bubble of more built-in assumptions, rote regurgitations, etched-in-stone givens and mind-numbing inertia than most people immersed in it can even understand, let alone outsiders with even a casual interest. In fact the entire auto circus almost defies all rational explanation, which admittedly for some is comforting, while others find it infuriating.
As I’ve often described it, the swirling maelstrom that is the auto industry churns and ferments in a staccato cadence of fits and starts. It can swing wildly between unfettered brilliance and incredible stupidity on the same day, and the net-net of it results in a three steps forward and five back dance of mediocrity.
Anyone immersed in this business questions their involvement in it at least once a week, and if they don’t admit to that they’re flat-out lying. It can be one of the most soul-crushing pursuits that you can get yourself involved in, but every once in a while something really good or wondrous happens that keeps you coming back for more.
After taking all of this into account, at this mid-point in the year there are inevitably rumors and rumblings roiling about. And questions. Always questions. Some have obvious answers and some simply defy explanation. So I’ve assembled a few, keeping the focus on the high hard ones that consume most of the chatter in this town.
How can you explain a business where allegedly smart people knowingly squander an impeccable legacy and ignore historic authenticity all in the name of turning a brand into something it’s not?
How can you explain an automaker with a rich brand heritage of impeccable engineering filled with milestone motors that allows its machines to be swaddled in hideous bodywork that’s embarrassing to look at?
How can you explain the biggest bet on the come in the modern industrial-technological age, one defined by a mass movement to autonomy (occurring well, you know, somewhere down the road) that’s chewing up vast sums of R&D money in the here and now with promises of obscene profits that are also, well, you know, somewhere down the road?
How can you explain one of the largest automakers in the world with one of the largest marketing budgets in the world bumbling around in fits and starts with half-assed “marketers” impersonating qualified professionals, people who do less with more than anyone in the business?
How can you explain one of the most iconic brands in automotive history regularly engaging in lowest-common-denominator advertising, while seemingly going out of its way to ignore one of the most illustrious advertising legacies in the business?
How do you explain a glorified snake oil peddler who continues to mesmerize otherwise smart members of the financial community (and the media), who in turn willfully act as his built-in PR shills, while the company has yet to deliver a single dollar of profit in its entire existence?
Speaking of said media, how does a known, carpetbagging mercenary even merit more than a cursory mention in its coverage of the business after all these years of his overpromising and underdelivering?
How long can a company with one (very) trick pony contributing the majority of its profits continue to hinge its entire future upon it?
How long can companies continue to churn out immense profits on vehicles anathema to their brand legacies before those legacies are forgotten or destroyed altogether?
How long does an alleged “cultural” and “process” visionary have to make a difference for a company long known for its deep silos and entrenched fiefdoms?
How long does an earnest and well-intentioned CEO have before being replaced by the company’s very aggressive No. 2?
How can an auto company reinvent itself as a technology company when it’s approaching near paralysis due to its antiquated IT systems?
How long can a company with an incredible legacy of high-performance and numerous victories at the highest levels of racing continue to squander that legacy by pretending those achievements either don’t exist, or are only attractive to targeted segments of “intenders”?
How long does this industry have before the “flat” sales projections turn sharply into a slippery downward slope?
How long can an industry that allegedly believes in the long-term efficacy of electric vehicles continue to ignore the need for the development of a national, standardized, “quick charge” charging system?
Yes, there are countless more, but these are the questions percolating the loudest in this business right now. And by the way, the current tranquility in this business brought on by the “comfortably” flat SAAR is simply the lull before the storm that’s looming off on the horizon.
And when that hits only two questions will matter: How far down will it slide? And for how long?
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
BMW?S LONG SLOW SLIDE INTO MEDIOCRITY.
26 Jun 2017 at 2:37pm
By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. A few weeks ago, in our annual AE Brand Image Meter column, I had this to say about 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.
This week, Automotive News is filled with notable hand-wringing about BMW from its dealers, corporate operatives and analysts, due to the fact that the company has a new U.S. CEO in place (since March 1). Bernhard Kuhnt, 49, (pronounced KOONT) has been given the unenviable task of running BMW of North America, but no one really has a clue as to what that means and how things are going to get better. Yes, there’s a new X3 arriving shortly, but the ho-hum feel of the new BMW model speaks volumes about the brand’s current state of ennui.
BMW’s dealers are pissed off because BMW is still building too many models and the push from the factory to deliver even more sales volume is simply out of hand. But, at the same time, of course, these dealers are also clamoring for a better truck-to-car inventory mix so that they can sell more vehicles. (Dealers wanting it both ways in this business is certainly nothing new. When you live in a world of 30-day increments it’s hard not to have a warped perspective.) But that’s not the real issue here, because BMW started losing its way a good 20 years ago. And BMW management has only itself to blame.
It’s not hard to see how it went wrong for BMW. Back when the 2002 performance sedan began to put BMW on the map over here, it was because its products were light, agile and fun to drive, and that endured even through the larger 3 Series and the E12 and E28 generation 5 Series. The boxy sedans with the large greenhouses of glass and a unrivaled level of responsiveness simply looked and felt like nothing else on the road.
Back then, BMW didn’t try to build something for everyone. Instead, the company focused on creating machines that bristled with the company’s distinctive point of view on sporting motoring. And that meant building machines that were exactly what BMW engineers wanted to drive, machines that marched to a different drummer in almost every aspect. Rather than mold its machines to a particular buyer, BMW expected, make that demanded a higher level of interest from its potential buyers, people who would come to appreciate the performance capability and come to share the passionate point of view that defined BMW. This single-mindedness on BMW’s part created a brand aura that achieved cult-like status with a growing number of devoted enthusiasts who believed that they knew what the rest of America’s motoring public didn’t. It was truly powerful and served BMW well for years.
Then in 1975, Martin Puris, CEO of the Ammirati & Puris advertising agency, came up with one of the most iconic automotive advertising themes of all time. “The Ultimate Driving Machine” not only perfectly captured the unbridled passion that drove BMW to create cars that marched to a different drummer and delivered an unrivaled driving experience, it also stirred the souls of legions of enthusiasts who simply couldn’t get enough of the brand’s offerings. The theme was magic, creating an aura for the brand that was not only unmistakable, but one that would dramatically remain all its own.
(It’s interesting, but I distinctly remember some of the comments by Detroit car company executives back in the late 70s. The unifying theme of their comments seemed to revolve around the fact that BMWs were homely oddities and that they didn’t get what the big deal was. But by the time I went to work on the Pontiac advertising account in early 1980, the battle cry around Detroit revolved around doings things “just like BMW” even though few understood what that really meant. Suffice to say, the success of BMW rocked Detroit to its core.)
So what happened? To paraphrase Joe Pesci as Nicky Santoro in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino,” when he described their downfall with the haunting words, “Then, we f---ked it all up.” BMW indeed f---ked it all up, there’s no elegant way to put it. In other words, the little German automaker that marched to a different drummer and was renowned for building genuine driving machines with a distinct point of view got lost. And got greedy.
Enjoying almost unfettered success, the powers that be in BMW management started to linger a little too long on their glowing press reviews and began thinking that they could do no wrong, which led them down the path of believing that they could get one of their products in damn near every garage in America. So a relatively simple BMW product lineup that consisted of a few sedans, coupes and a distinctive wagon here and there got swallowed up by a burgeoning product lineup that grew more cumbersome by the model year.
BMW unleashed niche products on top of niche products that stepped on each other in the market. Their cars became bloated and heavy, and their crossovers and SUVs grew bigger by the day. Luxury and technology for technology’s sake replaced performance, and the distinct point of view that defined BMW slowly but surely began to slip away.
BMW was no longer building “Ultimate Driving Machines” - instead they were building facsimiles of what the brand once stood for designed to extract as much money from consumers as possible. Yes, there were certainly some standout M cars unleashed over the years that reminded enthusiasts of how great BMW used to be, but for the most part BMW had traded in its hard-won authenticity for a volume play based on faux representations of what the brand once was, all for $699 (and up) per month.
And this volume push from the factory proved costly, because not only did dealers have trouble keeping up with the product onslaught, consumers wandered off to greener pastures because the raison d’etre for buying a BMW was becoming harder to find. After all, what did BMW stand for again? Not only had BMWs become too ubiquitous, but too often its models had become lost in a cloud of “me-too” blandness. To make matters worse, the choices from the other manufacturers seemed just as good to consumers, if not better, than what BMW had to offer.
In short, BMW’s long, slow slide into mediocrity has taken its toll, and it isn’t the Ultimate Driving Machine any longer. It’s a car company pretending to adhere to the core beliefs that it once stood for, but this just in: it isn’t fooling anyone. It has simply lost its way.
I have no idea if Mr. Kuhnt has a clue, but I am quite certain of one thing: There are few auto companies in the world that have done less with more than BMW. And before Mr. Kuhnt does anything, he must answer two burning questions: As in why BMW? And why now?
Because a legacy is a terrible thing to waste.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
The new BMW X3 xDrive (the M40i version shown above) is just what BMW dealers are clamoring for, allegedly. It’s supposed to be better in every way but based on an overview of the product that the company released, it’s hard to discern a compelling reason to buy one. Talk about a giant “we’ll see.”
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.
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