2010-06-28

Marketing and the Millennium Shift: Bad Car

The icons of 20th century American business are falling down.  I remember reading Brave New World in high school and laughing at the futuristic society built on the Ford Motor company and mass production.  Not only is the dystopian society based on Henry Ford's assembly line spotlessly clean, its actually been polished to a fault, eliminating the 'messiness' of live births and going #2.  Even in the 1990s I could not envision the worship the automobile as anything but a hilarious anachronism. Perspectives shift rapidly when centuries roll over, and 50 years was long enough to flip-flop society's heroes and villains.

To be fair, anyone or anything born after 1980 has been privy to the steadily rising concern (be it real, contrived or both) about air quality.  Most newcomers into the market since (1980)  have no direct link to fossil fuel;  you don't actually have to load up an iMac with Super Unleaded to Google "Jersey Shore" when your boss is out of the office.  Its easier to separate the product from the big and bad.  Cars taking the hit for air pollution is a lot like tobacco taking the hit for cancer.  The assumption that sucking smoke into one's lungs will age the respiratory system prematurely is a pretty easy one to defend, and a physical item, the cigarette, can be sighted as an accessory.  With the issue of atmosphere, given that we have to breathe and will be vaporized if the ozone ever disappears, the concept of preservation sells itself.  But the real hook is the very real gas pump and exhaust pipe sitting in every person's driveway or designated parking spot.

Sometimes I wonder how much of life is directly driven by images, iconography, and the relationship with symbols and logos.  Is it a surprise that the invention which was the very triumph of 20th century America is now being willfully subverted, turned on its ear in the 21st?  Everything associated with the GM/Ford brand, such as efficiency, consistency, and reliability has been publicly renounced.  Is it the product or the association with it that the market wants distance from?  Did we criminalize the tobacco companies because of health problems or because we needed to kill off any remaining evidence of plantations to move out of that part of the story?

 Here lies the role of marketing.  We are all driven forward in part of a huge story, and if we don't tell out own, someone else will fill in the gaps.  Why was the auto industry so unprepared for this turn of events?  To me, they have only themselves to blame.  Problems have been mounting with the public image of these companies for some time, and no one has successfully been able to curtail them.  The pollution problem has been a hot button issue for at least 30 years, and the marketing for major auto companies has literally ignored it.  This points to the fact that the companies were not sustainable and have been riding things out for some time now, but that seems to be a bitter pill for Americans to swallow. 

At one time, just being able to afford a car was like a miracle.  This was what the company was founded on.  Suddenly, there was an affordable car.  People didn't care if it was safe, or even very good. Cheapness and quantity were the selling points.  If the companies would have planned, from a fiscal standpoint, to maintain their employees, they could have leveraged that as a selling point for the product when consumer priorities changed.  Human focus can divert attention away from even our desire to self-preserve in the face of environmental fall out.  In the end, the massive layoffs sealed their fate as bad guys.

Arguably, there is just one chip left to throw down in this bad poker game:  familiarity.  Cars are familiar;  anything else seems scary and new to the average consumer.  If we don't have marketing departments in our major corporations who can use familiarity to save face, I don't think our concern should be about the economy, politicians, or even nature.  We need to go looking for our storytellers.  It appears they've gone rogue, and that's when things really start to get interesting.

3 comments:

  1. Here's where I think the auto industry has gone wrong.
    Americans, and most people in the industrialized world, love their automobiles. The car is the best way to sate the wanderlust that we all crave. With a car, like the horse and wagon before it, the "getting there" is as important as the arrival. Cars should, quite simply, sell themselves.
    A problem arises when a scarcity of fuel, or a perception thereof, threatens the viability of the relationship between man and his beloved machine. The problem compounds itself when that little voice in the back of each of our heads says.."Hey, how come that car I bought back in '92 was so much easier on the wallet than this neat Toyota Tundra I just bought last year?"
    We get further disturbed when the media begins to blame 'us' for favoring that Tundra or F250 of Ridgeline. And we begin to think that, just maybe, that nice, roomy Impala could be using a lot less fuel than its manufactured to burn.
    This is what causes some people to run out and buy a Mini Cooper or a SmartCar or a handful of other cramped little boxes, even though each of these pricey little models actually gets poorer gas mileage than my 5 passenger '91 Dodge Spirit did.
    So the little voice begins saying "WTF?" and the car companies pay the little voice no mind.
    And like the seat belt and the air bag and any number of improvements beforehand, fuel efficiency gets shuffled to the back of the priority pile until companies are dragged, kicking and screaming, into a position to deal with it. And MARKETING fills the void...but for how long?
    Your example of Ford is a good one. Because Henry Ford was an innovator. He figured out how to take the automobile and "crank 'em out". So I'll give him his due there.
    What he was NOT was a visionary. That title belongs to the people who ground out the first internal combustion engines and attached them to buckboards in sweaty, cramped little shops years before.
    By the same token, the fine folks at Apple and MicroSoft and Hewlett Packard are innovators in their field. But it was those electronics nerds who tinkered with piles of 'junk' in the garages of the future Silicon Valley who were the visionaries.
    In short, I'd be saddened if I ever had to say goodbye to my car. But all that the automobile industry, in fact all endeavors in this place and this time, needs is more visionaries and less innovators.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You make some very interesting points here. I do see a shift in consumer taste going from mass production to individually made goods, under certain circumstances. Like major purchases, for example. Since it's a hassle to pay for a car or a home, people want the quality that in my opinion, the assembly line was never intended to produce.
    I think the auto industry has failed to accurately measure and respond to consumer demand, bottom line. I don't think cars are going anywhere, but I think GM might disappear. In my opinion, they should. They had a good run. The bailouts are like wheeling in the crash cart for a 110 year old man. I do think marketing plays a role here, as the maintenance of these brand names, not the products, is part of what has snowballed people into this 'can't fail' business mentality. Let go of the attachment to a brand, and maybe try buying something else. When the bailouts reach the point when money given goes beyond covering the bottom line, it does actively edge the little guys out of the market. They can help these guys cover their butts without keeping them the #1 company. Shouldn't they have to scale back a little? I mean, does the government have to pay for advertising budgets? Must they sponsor ads for Ford Motor company? I say no, but they are. They are covering their budget as if there was no problem with demand. And that screws up the market.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Just need to correct something I posted in my earlier comment.
    It seems I was a tad harsh on the Silicon Valley guys.
    I happened to hear a VERY interesting discussion on NPR the other day. It seems that both Hewlett and Packard actually WERE a couple of those geeks who pieced together their early creations in a California garage. In fact, the story went on to say, Hewlett Packard is preserving "the garage" as a promotional piece of company lore.
    Not to be outdone, Apple seems to have acquired a "garage of their own. It seems that Jobs and Wozniak(who had worked for Hewlett and Packard) ALSO tinkered their creations into being in a garage, which they, too, are rumored to be in the process of securing for posterity.
    Not to be outdone, the good folks at Google are now claiming that THEIR founders also logged some "GARAGE TIME" at some undetermined point during the incubation of their idea. They seem to have purchased 'A' garage(not known if it's actually THE garage)in order to preserve their place in 'visionary' history as well.
    I will now humbly concede that all these people were probably visionaries rather than mere innovators. After all, they have the "garages" to prove it!
    But I keep coming back to a fellow who, maybe a century or so ago, hatched his idea and his empire into fruition in a garage..in Kansas City, I believe, and had the foresight to photograph AND DRAW the garage for posterity and incorporated it extensively into his corporate and personal lore. That man was none other than Walt Disney.
    My tongue in cheek conclusion is this: I'm not sure if brilliant ideas, hard work and sweat make one a visionary. But having a workshop garage sure helps!

    ReplyDelete