The Blog

More on American Car Design…

I recently got a comment from a reader, who took issue with some of my past comments on why it seems that American car manufacturers seem to design “less than attractive” cars. His points were that so have the Japanese & European manufacturers…and with attitudes like mine, no wonder the American automotive industry is in such crisis.

I applaud his brand loyalty. There are plenty of things I’m also loyal to – and I wish one of them was cars from the American car industry. But, his logic is flawed, in my opinion. Based on his note, the problem isn’t that we’ve built ugly cars, it’s that people just need to buy American. To a degree, he’s right – if we’d bought more American cars, we wouldn’t see GM shedding brands and declaring bankruptcy, nor would we see Fiat now a large owner of Chrysler.

But, let’s take my opinions out of the equation for a moment. Reality – the American buyer votes with his bank account…and there are a multitude of reasons why he/she hasn’t voted American nearly as much recently as, say, back in the 1960’s.

So, let’s take a look at “1969 vs. 2009”.

  1. Market Penetration. In 1969 – there wasn’t Datsun / Nissan, or Honda, or Toyota, or Subaru, or Mazda, or Kia, or Hyundai….and the list goes on. What the American automotive machine was competing against was either poorly made cheap British & Italian cars, or the VW Beetle. And, American build quality was world-leading. But, the cars were simple. Frame, body, engine, carburetor, wheels, suspension, brakes. Performance was measured by adding a bigger engine, and maybe cutting down on the overall mass of the car – which is how the muscle car grew in popularity initially. Competition between GM, Ford & Chrysler kept the lines moving. And, yet, when it came to performance cars, American cars were a good value. Now, 2009. American cars have to compete not only with their much improved counterparts “across the pond”, they also have had to compete with a whole new group from Asia, which even if everything else was even, would still contribute to a loss of market share over the last 40 years.
  2. Value for the Money. In 1969, as I mentioned above, you could build a car for a pretty inexpensive amount of money. Safety requirements, emissions requirements, reliability expectations were all much lower. So, there was not only room to pay the labor costs associated with the car, but still make a good sized profit. Now, in 2009, labor costs, along with the costs of meeting safety and emissions requirements, have caused the cost to build a car to explode. Unions still expect their workers to get paid the wages they’ve negotiated, retired workers still need their pensions, and shareholders still want their ROI. So, the accountants have gotten involved – and even though the overall reliability of American cars has drastically improved over the last 20 years, they still feel “cheap” inside. Hard plastic, cheap materials, and lost options abound on the lower-tiered cars in order to hit their price points. Yet, with lower labor costs, no union pensions, and a different shareholder perspective, have allowed European and Asian manufacturers to create cars that “feel” more expensive in comparison.
  3. Management Myopia. 1969 had the “Big Three” competing with themselves for the most part. When the rush of inexpensive, and eventually reliable, Asian cars rolled in during the 70’s gas crisis, it seems that one of two things happened. Either management ignored the threat, or with our American desire for “instant gratification”, the Big 3 shareholders handcuffed management’s need to change the companies and their resulting corporate cultures to chase after the “immediate ROI”. I suspect it was a bit of both. Case in point – GM was the early innovator in the late 1990’s with battery / hybrid technology with the EV1. Yet, they killed the car because they felt the need to chase Ford & Chrysler for SUV market share – and transferred those development dollars to Hummer. Now, Hummer is being sold to a Chinese company, and Toyota currently leads the way.

To be fair, not all American cars suck. The new Chevy Malibu – very attractive, and back to providing good value for the money. Same with most of the Cadillac line. Dodge still builds some of the best trucks, not to mention most attractive. But, of the three, Ford in my mind still leads the way. The Mustang – just about perfect. The truck lines – spectacular. And, unlike the other two, Ford does know how to build small cars – the Focus has always felt more expensive than it was, and the upcoming Fiesta is a world leader.

It’s not that I want the American car industry to fail –far from that. I want to see them truly regain the position that they’ve lost over the last 40 years. But, to “Buy American” just because it’s American – doesn’t keep us competitive. It doesn’t force us to do our best. Competition is good. It’s even better when – finally – it seems that the Big 3 have woken up, and realized that they aren’t competing anymore with each other – they are now on a world stage, and have to cut back, build attractive cars that provide safety, reliability, value – and are just as attractive from a design perspective as anything from Europe or Asia.

Here’s hoping they do it!

Why the economic downturn can drive good design

We’ve just come out of a time where, let’s face it – the conspicuous consumption of the last 10 years dwarfs what we saw during the 80’s. We’ve had reality shows that show young girls being chauffered in Lamborghini’s to “sweet 16 parties” that cost the same amount of money that AIG employees got (or now, might just get taxed out of) for bonuses.

And, things moved on at such a swift pace, that as long as it was “pretty” – people would buy it. 15 years ago, who ever heard of the term, “Do you speak Prada?”. Now, with budgets scaled back, and people actually taking the time to think about what they are buying – now is actually a great time for products that are built on the concept of “form follows function”.

I’ll use Chrysler vs. Ford as one example. Both companies have, over the last 15 years, built vehicles that are attractive. But design goes beyond “pretty”. Design isn’t just how it looks – it’s how it works. Good design means you don’t have to think about how to use it – you just use it. In the most recent surveys done by Consumer Reports, had both GM and Chrysler at the bottom of the list in reliability, with Ford fourth from the bottom. (USAToday – 27 Feb 09). And, yet, both design cars such as the Dodge Viper, the Chrysler 300M, the Ford Mustang, and even the now discontinued Ford GT – that are quite attractive.

Another example is Apple products compared to…well, just about any competing product. During the downturn, Apple has introduced the new “unibody” Mac’s, the iPhone, new iPods, and now the Shuffle. Sales may have dropped a little, but to hear that Lenovo (which makes great systems, by the way) has had to lay of people at their factories in China – seems to be showing that the combination of good visual design, good ergonomic design, and good mechanical design – are what are becoming key to sales.

Basically, it’s coming down to this – if people are going to spend, they want it to last, and they want to be proud of it. Architect Sarah Susanka has been a proponent for years of smaller spaces, with money spent on the details. Over the last “boom” – the goal seemed to be to buy bigger homes – yet, not necessarily better homes. Last year, for the first time in 10 years – the average square footage of new single-family homes actually fell from 2,629 in the second quarter, to 2,343 in the fourth quarter, according to US Census Data.

We’re seeing a return to common sense. We want more out of less. We want to feel connected to what we have spent our money on. Those who produce designs that help create a long-term emotional bond to the brand, to the product, and to the company that produced them, will be the winners once we rebound out of this downturn.

Starting a new painting – “Last Light”

Now that I’ve finished my previous painting, “Wahikuli Sunrise” – time to start a new one! The next one (that hopefully won’t take too long for me to finish up) – tenatively to be called “Last Light” – is from a collection of images I shot after spending one day this past summer doing a 20 mile hike within Haleakala Crater on Maui. The damn hike kicked my ass, and I made it back to my car at the head of Halemau’u Trail right before sunset.

While driving down the mountaina – I ended up having to pull over and shoot the incredible sunset across the hills above Kula. From these shots, comes the subject for this next painting. Finished size will be 12″ x 30″ – Oil.

So, after one night of painting, I have the basic colors down on the canvas. This is just the beginning – it has a long way to go – but I’m already getting a good feeling on how it’s going to turn out!

The Importance of Integrity & Reputation

Whether it’s in a business relationship, a friendship, or a marriage – the importance of integrity can not be emphasized enough. I have been forced to think about this topic quite a bit over the last few weeks – due to a friendship that at this point, looks as though it has unfortunately, and catastrophically, ended.

Without identifying the friend, nor their situation, I’ve found myself stuck in a situation that has forced me to re-evaluate the importance of staying true to one’s own values. The problem is, I see my friend making a multitude of errors in their life that has hurt many people. They have sacrificed quite a bit over the last few weeks due to this – and yet, they continue to follow a path that from my experience, will not dig them out of the hole they’ve created for themselves.

One of those sacrifices has been their integrity. The person I thought I’d known for the last few years – now, I hardly recognize. When all of this started, I promised them that as a friend, I would not tell them what they wanted to hear – but what they needed to hear. And, they said they would not want things any other way. So, about 10 days ago, I had to do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I had to bring to their attention, the fact that I know the reasons behind their recent choices. And, I didn’t do this in a judgmental way. Rather, I was trying to show them how their current path could lead to more problems.

The problem is compounded by the fact that this person has been one of my best friends. They feel horribly guilty over the pain they have caused others. And, since my warning to “be careful”, they have ended all contact with me. Yet, I have no regrets over trying to warn them – since, it would be a violation of my own sense of integrity, as well as a violation of the promises I’d made to them as a friend, if I hadn’t brought this to their attention.

The tough thing about living a life of integrity – is it’s not an easy path. Whether it’s a friend, a spouse, a business associate, or a customer – taking the path of least resistance may seem at the time to be the best approach. It avoids confrontation at the moment. It allows you to avoid the pain and discomfort of having to face someone that is offended. And, there’s always the excuse that “I can just avoid this now and deal with this later”.

Unfortunately, unless dealt with immediately, the longer you go without dealing with the issue, gives the person that you’ve offended that much more time to question your integrity. And may damage the relationship to the point that you loose that customer permanently. Or the spouse. Or business associate. Or…as in this case…possibly a friend.

Reputation research has verified what you were taught as a kid –  reputations are hard to earn and easy to damage. We filter the behavior we experience through the lens of its reputation. Behavior consistent with the reputation is accepted at face value while events inconsistent with the reputation are discounted.  And, once a reputation begins to move in a positive or negative direction, its momentum is extremely difficult to reverse.

From a business perspective, studies have shown that even a small positive increase in a company’s reputation results in a significant increase in business value, while a negative drop in reputation results in a decrease in business value. For example, a +1% improvement in the reputation of a company is accompanied by significant increases in that company’s value. Unanticipated, however were the strength of the impacts of negative changes in company reputation. A minor decrease in reputation (-1%) has 34 times the impact than an equally minor increase in reputation (+1%)!

Looking at the current economic crisis is a perfect example. A strong positive business reputation attracts customers, investors and employees. This has great benefits for a company because it will book more business, have an easier time raising money and recruiting employees. One of the great gains of a positive reputation is the loyalty it generates in customers and employees. Loyalty will cause customers and employees to stick with a company through tough times. A good reputation also makes a customer more likely to give a company the “benefit of the doubt”. This will make a customer more likely to tolerate a huge mistake and to not resort to the courts to settle a dispute. And, may give that company a competitive advantage over other, less reputable companies

It’s also important that when we end up in a situation where our trust is broken, that we let our own sense of integrity derive the path we should take with that person, company, or organization. Many times, there may be underlying reasons that were out of their control that caused the fault to occur. So, giving them “the benefit of the doubt” is never a bad thing. But at the same time – once should never compromise their own integrity in that process. To do so – may cause others around you to question your integrity just like you’re questioning the integrity of the  person or company that broke your trust.

How do you know if you’re a person of integrity? Simple. There is a wonderful quote from Thomas B. Macaulay. “The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out”. As well as another one from Martin Luther King Jr. – “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”. And, finally, one from Thomas Jefferson – “In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock”.

PS. In the event that my friend reads this (which is doubtful) – I would hope they would call me – as a matter of principle, I don’t abandon my friends – especially when I know they are feeling bad. ☺

Social Networking – Is It Relevant?

I was just reading an article in 1to1 Magazine  – called “The Social Media Hype Is Over” – basically, they feel that it’s time to create real value from online customer interactions. Beyond being today’s buzzword, social media has taken our job as marketers, and thrown us on our collective asses.

We started out with the Internet – a nice, controllable vehicle to get our message out. Then, we started corporate blogs – which gave us the ability to get closer to our customers, while getting feedback (good and bad) – but we still retained some control over the “message”. Now, with the growth of social communities such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc, – we no longer control the message – our customers do.

The question we keep asking ourselves (or, get asked by our bosses / clients / customers) – is whether social networking is really relevant?

Short answer – if you think for a second it’s not – it’s time for a new career.

I’m thinking of a kayaking trip with friends in the next few weeks. I’ve communicated with my friends to plan the trip over Facebook. I read reviews of different tours on Yelp. One company – has a blog where i read up about the last few trips they’ve headed up for clients. I’ve checked out trips taken by other customers on Flickr, Photobucket, YouTube, and Picasa.

In the past, I’d had just called the company, booked the trip, and hoped for the best. Yet now, with a tightening economy, I want to know what I’m getting prior to the trip – and I want to know what others think.

The opportunity for us as marketers – is to realize that as costs go up, for us to ignore our clients desire to research what they are getting for their money – that the less we do with marketing over social networks – the more our customers will do it for us. I realize that I’d mentioned above that the customer controls the message now. This isn’t totally true. They interpret what we put out there as our message – and then do some of our marketing for us.

Our job – is to make sure the message is more accurate than ever before – and, make sure that we stay on top of that message. Then, utilize these social media tools to make sure our customers know about our message. Finally, once we’ve accomplished that – we then need to stay on top of what they say about our message – how they interpret it and market it – so we can constantly make course corrections in our message.

I like to think that in some ways, we’ve simplified some of our market research via the introduction of social networks. Think about how many blunders have taken place over the years because what a focus group said was important, was irrelevant once brought to market. Now…you’re going to know the relevance to the market that much sooner, and possibly more accurately, than ever before. We now have the ability to monitor our brands in real time – for better or worse!

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Idiocracy, Part 3

With the sad news of the death of George Carlin, in honor of his outlook on things, it’s had me thinking of a few observations I’ve had for awhile.

Have you ever noticed that you can, for the most part, build an accurate personality profile of a person based on what vehicle they drive?

First – the minivan. No male with any testosterone left in his veins drives a minivan unless..

1. He is over the age of 60 and driving the grandkids to soccer practice is his only escape in life.
2. Late some evening, when he was asleep, his wife castrated him.
3. His wife purchased it, and he’s forced to drive it, under the threat of never seeing his wife naked again if he doesn’t.
4. It’s all that he can afford to drive – as it was either given to him, or his only other option was a rusted out Yugo.

Otherwise, it’s driven by a woman who equates a car with a refrigerator as an appliance.

Yet, for the most part, the driving behavior of the minivan driver (damn…I sound more like an anthropologist) is usually the same. Whip out into traffic, forcing all oncoming vehicles to slam on their brakes – then drive in the fast lane at least 10mpg under the speed limit.

The closest driver to a minivan driver – is the person driving a Saturn.

I had to keep from laughing today as I watched an elderly couple in a Buick. I know that General Motors has a problem – they want to appeal to a younger demographic, yet not alienate the older population that has been the brand’s “bread and butter” but come on…why makes people over the age of 50 think that driving a large, lumbering, slow, inefficient car like a Buick is the epitome of driving?

Then…we have opposite side of the equation. I was watching an episode of “Top Gear” on BBC America the other week, and the host Jeremy Clarkson – before he would drive the BMW in a car comparison test, insisted on wearing a polo shirt, Dockers, and a Bluetooth headset. Ever since then, every time I look at a driver of a BMW, it’s either a girl who is trying to impress her girlfriends (and her next car is a Mercedes) – or it’s a dude that is wearing a polo shirt, Dockers, and a Bluetooth headset. I realize that I’ve just described every single male under 30 in Scottsdale, AZ. Who has that “uber-cool” haircut that if they ever watched an older movie, would realize it’s the same haircut Pee Wee Herman had 20 years ago!

All of these people usually create more accidents than they actually cause…and have no idea of the nirvana caused by learning how to drive a proper sports car….properly! Europe should be happy that there isn’t a bridge between us and them…or maybe they’d then experience the unfortunate experience of road rage when they get cut off by the minivan, stuck behind the Saturn, who’s car won’t start because they stalled avoiding the Buick taking 30 minutes to parallel park…all while the dude in the BMW looks like he’s talking to himself!

Idiocracy – Part 2

Hollywood, I believe..is its own, bizzare universe. For the most part, those who produce the things we watch – are so out of touch with reality that it amazes me that anyone makes a living in the TV/Movie industry. Yet, not only do they make a living, those “at the top” live quite well.

How does this happen? Is this due to stellar marketing effort by the top studios? Where multi-million dollar ad budgets, now combined with state-of-the-art viral marketing campaigns via the top social networking sites, build enough buzz to elevate even the poorest excuse of a movie to box office success?

Nope – it’s because we’re all idiots.

Case in point – it’s been announced that there is a new movie now in production, based on a 80’s TV series. OK…this is the first mistake. Rarely, if ever, does a movie based on a successful TV show ever to that show justice. I’m thinking maybe the only one in recent years that’s worked is Sex in the City. Now, I was never a fan of the show (being a guy…I’d have to give up my man-card if I thought it was truly worth watching) – but female friends that I have that have seen it enjoyed it. WIth one complaint, though – saying that it was like the writers/producers tried to cram an entire season into two hours.

Second mistake – is taking this 80’s TV show I haven’t named yet – that was very successful, and not using the original actors. Especially when the lead actor in the TV show was so closely identified with the main character. The 80’s TV show in question – is Magnum, P.I. For eight seasons, we all watched the opening montage – TC’s helicopter over Honolulu, then the shot of Tom Selleck smiling at the camera, then pulling away with spinning tires in a Ferrari 308 GTS. Then a shot of Larry Manetti as Rick at the King Kamehameha Club, followed by John Hillerman as Higgins.

Yet, for the remake, the actors named so far – Matthew McConaughey as Thomas Magnum. Steve Zahn as Rick. Tyrese Gibson as TC. And William H. Macy as Higgins. If you pull Tyrese out of this mix, it’s sounds more like a sequel to Sahara, not Magnum. Plus, now, rather than Magnum, TC & Rick being ex-Vietnam vets – they’re talking Gulf War vets. Now – all these actors are good actors. They may have some chemistry, especially since they worked together on a previous film. And…hell – everybody needs to make a living. But – after 8 years of Magnum – doesn’t the “powers that be” in Hollywood get the fact that people don’t identify these actors with Magnum? Seems that only Lucas / Spielburg get it – after almost 20 years, they bring back Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones (and make his newest adventure 20 years after his last) – they even bring back Karen Allen in her original role – and look how well its done at the box-office!

Finally – if you’re going to make all these other mistakes, you’d think someone would suggest bringing in a writer and director that have experience with this type of genre. Nope – wrong again – instead, you bring in a writer who also directs – and who doesn’t have that much experience – you’d pick a guy with a couple of comedy films and commercials under his belt instead. Just to make sure you can elevate this from “mistake” to “idiocracy”. You’d bring in Rawson Marshall Thurber. Who is that? The writer / director of Dodgeball!

I just don’t get it.

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Idiocracy

Watch the movie “Idiocracy”…then go through a Wal-Mart on a Sunday afternoon. You will come to believe the movie was really a cleverly disguised documentary.

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Woopra – Is this the future of blog stats?

Just read about a blog stat program called Woopra. Check it out at www.whoopra.com.

According to their site, Whoopra is a ” robust web-tracking & analysis tool that works perfectly on any website. It is mainly targeted for small to medium websites ranging from few hundreds up to tens of thousands of daily page views. Essentially, it is targeted for blogs interested in the most minuscule details of every single action. In addition, Woopra provides a precise real-time streaming of every single activity on the website.”

May have to try it and see what happens!