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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Beheading General Motors

Now that the other shoe has dropped, the world continues to speculate about the prospects of General Motors, the recently crashed-and-severely-burned mega-enterprise that was once considered "too big to fail." Pundits on the right claim the government has no business being in business. Liberals on the left cry that the government isn't doing enough. Unfortunately, both sides are way off course, not even close to where the real problems are.

The problem with General Motors isn't down on the factory floor. It's not even in their operations or dealerships or research & development. In fact, those guys are doing pretty well. The real problem with GM is right up there, on the top floor of their executive offices, where the empty suits are destined to repeat the very same mistakes that got them into this mess.

Think I'm kidding? Watch this:




More of the same old, tired promises we've always heard from the American car industry. More hot air from the tailpipes of the Deutsch Agency, GM's tried-and-failed advertising vendor who believed tagging Saturn as "a different kid of car company" actually meant something. Of course it didn't. Saturn has failed, too. But failure never seemed to matter to the brass at GM. In fact, reality never seemed to matter to the brass at GM. If it did, they'd be doing things a whole lot differently than in the past.

The first thing they'd do is shut the hell up. Brands rely on trust, clarity and credibility. If your brand promises something, you've got to deliver on it. If you don't deliver on those promises, your brand's credibility is crushed like a '62 Corvair in the wrecking yard. General Motors has been failing on the bulk of its promises for decades now. The last thing anyone wants to hear are more "feel-good" messages from guys with a bad delivery track record.

If GM were smart, they'd just go quiet. Stop all the talking and let the public wonder what they really are up to. In fact, if they could just shut the bullshit valve for a month or two, people would start wondering what the hell really is going on over at GM. They'd stop rejecting GM precisely because the bullshit stream had stopped flowing.

If we could just get GM to shut the hell up, all that quiet could generate industry buzz about the delivery of goods GM has teased us about. The folks over at Apple are masters of this, publicizing nothing other than an appearance at some consumer electronics event where they "plan to make a big announcement." For months prior to the event, nerds and geeks keep the internet buzzing with speculation and theory -- and they do that for free.

Then GM should just deliver the Volt. No amount of masturbatory media can compare to simply delivering the goods. Just rolling out the proof of what they've promised would turn people into believers.

Why isn't GM doing that? Why not stay silent and maybe drive a prototype Volt down Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, allowing just enough time for some yutz to capture it on his cell phone and post it to the web?

I'll tell you why: Because the boys in the penthouse, despite having the heads handed to them on Capitol Hill, still have those heads firmly buried in the corporate sand. What the government -- and just about everyone else -- doesn't realize is that General Motors doesn't understanding branding at all. Want more proof?

In the 1960's, the Pontiac brand was roughly 92% testosterone. If the brand were any more masculine, the cars would have had hair on them. Across America, young, virile men roared down the highway in GTO's, Firebirds, Bonnevilles and Trans-Ams. Rock bands composed odes to their Pontiacs. Top 40 hits like Little GTO were played at parties and dances at every high school, college and beach. Ever watch Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit? Yup. That's a sleek, shiny black Pontiac TransAm, baby, built to kick the ass of any southern sheriff stupid enough to chase it.

Of course, that's the TransAm from the 1970's.

By the 1980's, the geniuses in GM's penthouse decided that the Pontiac brand was too strong to die, and began replacing their macho machines with smaller, foreign gas-powered roller skates that never had a chance of delivering on the brand's original promise. All over the country, people were disappointed to be getting Perez Hilton when they'd been expecting Burt Reynolds.

Yuck.

I really hope General Motors succeeds. I'm convinced that the country does, too. But it's not going to happen by firing workers -- unless the workers you're talking about are the boys up in the penthouse.