Ask anyone in the car business about what it takes to turn around a car company and the answer is always Product with a capital P. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, without a compelling vehicle famously offering “what the people want to buy,” a great ad campaign won’t ensure success.
On the other hand, if enough buyers won’t put a car brand on their shopping lists for any number of reasons, even brilliant product will languish in dealer showrooms. In GM’s case, the automaker has product and, more recently, political perceptions to overcome.
In the heavily import brand dominated state of California, most car buying adults are either unaware of most GM cars or they have a decade-old view of GM’s quality. It seems that no mother yells at her daughter for marrying the nice, well-educated candidate or for buying a Toyota. It’s become common folklore that the Japanese make reliable cars and the Europeans build cars that are the most fun to drive. On the other hand, many traditional GM buyers are turned off by the government’s involvement in the company.
Bob Lutz was recruited to General Motors in 2002 to revitalize the company’s product lines, and he has had some success in that challenging undertaking. Cadillac’s CTS has been a hit in a very tough part of the luxury market and the new Caddy models are just as clearly focused. Chevrolet’s Malibu won North American Car of the Year honors, the new Equinox looks like the best in its segment, and Chevy’s new Cruze could be a potential winner in the subcompact category where past efforts were lackluster. Buick’s portfolio is very competitive, with an all new LaCrosse joining the popular Enclave. And let’s not omit the Chevy Volt, the extended range electric car that GM hopes will turn around its image.
Although Lutz didn’t single-handedly reverse GM’s fortunes during his seven-year tenure, he did create an environment that honors inspired design and a determination to build products that have the quality attributes to compete with any automaker. Now he’s been reassigned to work the same magic for GM’s marketing, an area that the new chairman, Ed Whitacre, and the entire board have designated as top priority.
Most automotive product executives are engineers, so moving from car making to ad creation isn’t a normal career path. In Bob’s case, he’s a former marketing executive who happens to have a brilliant product vision and the management skill to get his visions produced. He jokes about his lack of engineering credentials as having practiced without a license. But on the marketing front, Lutz drove BMW’s successful “Ultimate Driving Machine” strategy in the mid-1970s, a campaign so successful that it’s still in use.
In most cases, a new marketing executive begins his or her assignment by firing the ad agency and bringing in old pals from another shop. Or if that’s not easily accomplished, he puts the account in review and holds an advertising gunfight among competing agencies, including the woeful incumbent.