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GM Death Watch 143: Off Target

Robert Farago
Wednesday, August 22, 2007


I'd like to meet the idiot who thought that the Cadillac BLS was a good idea. Actually, I'd like to meet the group of idiots who said sure, let's create a small, badge-engineered Saab, fit it with a diesel engine, call it a Caddy and sell it to Europeans, South Africans and Mexicans. No, wait; just sit me down in front of the idiot who gave the other idiots the power to green light the idiot who had the idiotic idea in the first place. And I'll ask him straight out: what part of branding dont you understand? You know, other than all of it.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that everyone inside the artist formerly known as the world's largest automaker is completely clueless as to what kind of cars the company should be building. Just the ones making the decisions.

Of course, that's a prima facie argument when you''re facing a born loser like the Cadillac BLS, a car that's as far from "the standard of the world" as Target is from a "premium shopping experience." But GM's brand confusion is equally obvious if you look elsewhere, at the other automobiles in The General's over-stuffed portfolio. I mean, what would you think about GM's branding expertise if I told you that the above description of Target comes from the man behind the new Chevrolet Malibu?

It's true. Clay Dean, GM's former design director of small and mid-sized cars, told Automotive News that the new Malibu will provide a "premium experience with a low price tag," and then compared the model to Target. I don't know about you, but the last time I went to Target I didn't think, wow, this is just like one of those upmarket boutique type stores, only cheaper.

Target a cut-price Neiman Marcus? Hardly. I could try and complete that analogy- Malibu a cut-price Saab?- but readers' sniggers would draw unwanted attention from their cubicle providers. Anyway, if Dean and GM had just left it at that- Malibu as Target- you could almost say, well, OK, Target makes money. Thing is, the company isn't even that focused; Clay's comment is just one small part of the Malibu's aimless wander though the branding wilderness.

According to Automotive News, Ed Peper, Chevrolet's general manager, and Cheryl Catton, general director of Chevrolet's car marketing, went to see some honest-to-God customers who (gasp) bought something other than a Malibu (no names mentioned). The suits' mission: figure out how to market the General's next, next big thing/Hail Mary/new 'Bu.

The article's lead misleads readers into thinking the dynamic duo made random house calls (which would have shown some genuine stones). In fact, Peper and Catton visited pre-selected import lovers and asked them to define quality, reliability and dependability.

Hang on; shouldn't they have been asking these questions BEFORE building the Malibu? I mean, if these target (pun intended) consumers said "I define quality as a door that shuts like a bank vault" and the Malibu's portals close with all the precision of a Chinese-made Fairly Odd Parents' lunchbox, what then?

Anyway, let's assume that Peper and Catton simply wanted to know what wonderful things they should emphasize about their wonderful new Malibu. Then they're still wrong. Creating a product that does one thing better than anyone else is the essence of branding. Even if you extend that philosophy to two or three attributes, the die was cast when the dies were cast. If you don't know your car's killer app by the time you build the damn thing, it's too late to re-boot.

Anyway, what did Peper and Catton say they learned from their ding-dong GM calling experience? "Consumers rank three core qualities as important when deciding on a mid-sized car: exterior styling, value and reliability."

So, the heavy hitters went looking for definitions of core values and came back with the usual market research.

Excuse me: who ARE these people? Why are they in charge of a multi-billion dollar automaking enterprise? They're minions of GM's President of North America, Troy Clarke, who "challenged" Peper and Catton to keep it party real. And who put Clarke at the helm? GM CEO Rick Wagoner.

The Italians say the fish stinks from the head down. Well, there you go. GM lifer and former CFO Rick Wagoner is the man who (at a minimum) destroyed any remaining brand equity within Cadillac, Buick, Saab, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Chevrolet. Even if GM's North American operations were making money, Wagoner should be held accountable for allowing his employees to engage in the mindless obliteration of GM's most precious assets.

When GM introduced the BLS, they claimed they would sell 20k units per year. Last year, they sold 218. So far this year, they've shifted less than a dozen. Ladies and gentlemen, I rest my case.