The Blog

Chrysler – When Design does – and doesn’t – sell…

News today that Chrysler has declared bankruptcy. Wow – really, it’s only 30 years to late. In reality, Chrysler was dead back in 1979 when they took government loans to stave off bankruptcy.

I remember that time pretty vividly. Within a year, Chrysler was on their way to “recovery” thanks to Lee Iacocca, and the infamous “K” car. And, the Dodge Aries K was the first car I ever drove – back in 1980 in a drivers-ed class. The second car I drove during that same driving class was a Toyota Corolla – and the quality difference at that point made me understand why the Japanese car industry was overtaking the world.

Toyota, Mazda, Datsun (now Nissan), Honda and Subaru, 30 years ago – built cars that were cheap. Sure…maybe the interior plastics didn’t mix well with sunshine over time. But they ran. And ran. Didn’t break. Never left you stranded.

At the same time, it seems the “Big 3” were still trying to believe they were on top of the world like they were 10-15 years earlier. Yet, both the style of cars they built, along with the quality of the product the offered….well, just plain sucked!

The Japanese – they listened. They paid attention to what the customer was asking for. Quality, reliability, value – and style. About the time Chrysler was getting lucky with the whole “minivan” concept (which I believe is what truly rescued them back in the 80’s) – Japanese cars went from being “cheap, reliable, and funky” to “good value, reliable, and attractive”. Just like Korean manufacturers like Hyundai is currently doing.

Ford, and to some degree, General Motors, have finally started to figure all of this out. The Ford Fusion – I drove one as a rental car a few months back – yes, it’s built on the same platform (as well as, I think, the same assembly line) as the Mazda 6. And, I thought it was finally something that would make me look at choices other than a Camry or Accord. The Chevy Malibu – same thing. But the Chrysler Sebring I drove last year – what a piece of crap!

For $20K – you get something that can’t merge in traffic, makes you think you could disassemble the interior with a dull screwdriver, and had a funky smell of plastic release agent that made me think that on a long distance drive, would be more effective at getting one high that peyote! Not to mention it’s industrial ugly.

Even the Chrysler 300 – with it’s “gangster” look – aggressive, yes, but one design straight “from the hood” doesn’t cut it. The only “affordable” car that they now build that is even slightly attractive is the Challenger – a car that steals all its design cues from the 1960’s muscle-car hey-day.

I remember back about 15+ years ago when Chrysler came out with it’s “cab-forward” look  – where they seemed to think they could lead with “style” – like this would cover the other, important things people look for in a purchase they’ll pay for now for 4-6 years – things like reliability, resale value, and “lasting style”. For a time – I had hope they would do it. Now, the market has spoken – and with sales down over 40% from last year, the lines they’ve brought out the last 2-3 years just don’t resonate with people.

Here’s the thing. Style gets them into the showroom – the first time. The rest of the car keeps them coming back. Example – Porsche. BMW. Ferrari. Jaguar.  All these companies build cars that go “beyond” style. Performance and resale value keep owners in these cars, and to a large degree, they don’t rest on their past successes – they keep the brands growing. New designs that break with the past (to varying degrees) – yet still keep customers excited. On the lower end of the price-scale – look at BMW with the Mini, Volkswagen, and any of the Japanese manufacturers. Even when sales are down, they retain their customer base. If style itself isn’t the selling point (i.e. the Toyota Prius looks like a freakin’ toaster) – it’s multiple other selling points.

I hope Chrysler can get their act together. With the concessions that both the unions and lendors are giving them, combined with Fiat’s eventual control of the company – there is a glimmer of hope for them. My fear is – if you can’t make a company work when you’re owned by Mercedes when the economy was good, how are you going to do it when the economy sucks and you’re owned by Fiat?

However they do it – they had better make their cars go beyond “style”. Give us substance as well.

GM and the upcoming bailout…

With the upcoming bailout of the “Big 3” Automakers, it’s got me thinking again about “bad design. Of the three, Ford is actually in the best position financially. GM…is in the worst. GM is also thinking of shedding a few of it’s lines, including Saturn, Buick, and Pontiac.

The funny thing is, with the exception of the Corvette, the upcoming Camaro, and the (of all things) – new Malibu, nearly all of Chevrolet’s products are, well, bland. Yet, the new Pontiac G8 (really a Holden designed in Australia) and the Solstice, the nearly all of the Saturn lines, and the newest Buick products – are actually attractive! With car sales down 37% or more over last year, it seems insane that GM would get rid of the lines that might actually have products worth buying, and keep the lines that, well, pretty much suck. Furthermore, they keep talking about the Chevy Volt – the car that will “save the company” when it comes out in 2010.

Speaking of the Volt, I’ve read complaints that the car is “boring” – not very exciting to look at. Now, it does look a bit less like a toaster than the Toyota Prius does, but here’s a chance for GM to show the world that a breakthrough automobile, that can go 40 miles on it’s batteries before kicking in a small gasoline engine for recharging them, can also be beautiful. Yet, they responded to the criticism by saying that people would buy the car not based on looks, but based on it’s technology.

I believe that this is additional proof that the movie “Idiocracy” was really a documentary!

Oh…and they’ve also announced that they expect that they won’t make a profit on the Volt, due to the enormous R&D costs they’ve incurred during it’s development.

And we wonder why GM is in trouble?

Thoughts on things “after the election”

Now that the election is over, and we’re now inundated with the media’s “Obama-mania” – I have been thinking about what all of this really means.

I just read an article on CNN that Obama is planning on “rebranding” the United States. The full article appears at http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/11/19/obama.world.image/index.html, but the gist of the piece is that although he’s poised to re-brand the United States image in international markets, his actions will have to live up to his rhetoric.

I, for one, don’t think that this is going to go well for him. Simply because I don’t see how anybody, at this point, could do it. The damage we’ve suffered within the international community over the last 8 years has been huge. From a branding perspective, when your brand has taken a hit – even if your customers want your brand to recover, and want to believe in you, turning your brand image around quickly is extremely difficult.

Think of General Motors. Up until the early 70’s, General Motors could do no wrong. They built large, gas-guzzling vehicles that had gobs of power, but were horrible for the environment, and burned through fuel as if it was always going to be cheap and plentiful. Between tightening emissions and a gas crisis in the early 70’s, they tried to turn on a dime, building cars like the Chevy Vega – pieces of crap that rusted on the showroom floors, that broke down constantly, and depreciated to the point of being worthless about the time they drove off the dealer’s lot.

35 years later, GM has never truly recovered. And, they’ve done a wonderful job of repeating their mistakes of the late 60’s – early 70’s – and are now facing bankruptcy without a huge injection of taxpayer money (which is really what a bailout is) – to keep them afloat. Now, yes, I understand that much of their problems are also due to UAW demands driving up labor costs, keeping their cars from being price competitive to other competing brands. But in terms of overall quality – there is still the perception that GM vehicles are not as reliable as, say, a Honda. Even when the quality of their vehicles has improved to the point where they may very well never break down.

Does this mean that people want GM to fail? No. But they’ve had 30 years to turn around their brand perception, and they’ve had the help of some of the best marketers in the business. Obama – he has 4 years – or less – to turn around the United States brand position. And, he also has to focus on our wars in  Iraq & Afghanistan, an economy in crisis, all while fulfilling the expectations of every voter that believed his promises enough to vote for him.

As a country, I think it’s in our best interest to support our new President. But, it’s not just his responsibility to improve our country’s image overseas. It’s our job too. A 2002 National Geographic study indicated that nearly a third of young Americans could not locate the Pacific Ocean. So, go learn a language. Learn about another culture. Befriend someone that you might have just met from another country – and learn about their experiences growing up somewhere else. And, if you travel overseas – be humble – and appreciate the country your visiting – learn from  it, and bring the best of it back here. Our country was built by people that brought their culture here – let’s show the rest of the world that we can still learn from them, rather than impose ourselves on them.

It might just make Obama’s job a little easier.