November 14, 2012
Even in this age of parity, the battle between the “haves” and "have-nots" continues.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 11/13, 8:00 p.m.) Detroit. The big buzzword in sports these days is “parity.” Parity in the NFL. Parity in college football. Parity in NASCAR. The old NFL adage says that “On any given Sunday… anything can happen.” Or Saturday, if it’s college football. Or Saturday night or Sunday at a racetrack, or whatever the sporting venue.
It can even be calculated to happen that way. The NFL has gone out of its way to make parity a part of its mantra, so that any of its teams allegedly have a real chance to make the playoffs. The league distributes the massive TV revenues equitably, it takes great pains to ensure that the NFL Draft in the spring apportions talent throughout the league, and its schedule is arranged so that lesser teams just might have a shot.
Only it never really happens that way. Take one look at the latest standings and the usual suspects are at or near the top in their divisions. Elite teams with elite talent always rise to the top.
The same goes for college football for the most part. The usual suspects – the teams with the best coaches and the best talent – always seem to be in the mix for the championship at the end of the year.
But parity can mean abject mediocrity too. NASCAR has gone out of its way for years to create parity in its series, even to the detriment of the sport itself. Example? When it adopted the dreaded “Car of Tomorrow” several years ago, which basically removed 90 percent of the corporate brand identity of the manufacturers and alienated its hard-core fans in droves. Not a brilliant move, which is why NASCAR is embracing production-looking bodywork for next season so that manufacturers have a reason to care.
Will it be enough? It’s anyone’s guess. NASCAR’s pirouette into irrelevance while trying to be relevant again to its participating manufacturers and its fans has been amazing to watch. And when NASCAR operatives say, “The return to momentum and good times is just around the corner,” or something along those lines, I don’t even think they believe it. It’s more like wishful thinking on the most grandiose and public scale.
Parity has hit the automobile business as well. Design talent is spread around the globe, so that even heretofore “lesser” car companies now have access to some of the most creative minds in the industry. The same goes for engineers, aerodynamicists, electronics experts, product development people and production specialists.
The result? The age of the “democratization” of technology is upon the industry. It could be argued that there aren’t any “bad” cars anymore, at least from the mainstream manufacturers with global expertise. Manufacturers can “dial-up” content to their hearts' content and they can deliver stellar machines almost at will.
Want to play in the near luxury market? Done. High-performance cars? Easy. Mainstream eco-transportation? No problem whatsoever. But fortunately there’s more to this business than assembling the key ingredients and the top talent. Because even though the talent is available and the right technical bits are a computer click away, that doesn’t mean that the results will necessarily come together just so.
That’s where the true artistry in this business comes to the fore. Just being able to develop the proper “feel” in an automobile or truck is a black art unto itself, because the computers can only do so much. Talk to the True Believers in this business and they will tell you that the human element in designing, engineering and developing cars cannot be underestimated. Note the return of clay modeling in the design business, at least in limited situations. Top designers still like to run their hands over a shape and get a “feel” for the integrity of the design. And many of them still like to hand wash their cars for the same reason, it’s a way to experience a shape that cannot be accomplished on a computer screen.
Yes, you can be frighteningly predictive in the computer design world, but when it comes to setting a tone and tempo for a new machine – and establishing that elusive “feel” that you experience behind the wheel – there’s still no practical substitute for a development engineer getting behind the wheel and tweaking, adjusting and cajoling just the right driving character, one that’s consistent with the fundamental engineering philosophy for the brand. (That is if the brand has one, something that’s still painfully questionable for some.)
And even if a manufacturer does assemble the top technical talent and dial-in the proper ingredients, and even if it does deliver a proper machine that’s truly competitive, there’s one more ingredient that just will not succumb to parity.
And that is brand image. I talk about it constantly, but if a manufacturer has all the ingredients in place and still doesn’t have a properly developed brand image, it’s nowhere.
Look at Infiniti. By all evidence Nissan’s top-tier brand has the talent and the technical ability, but the vehicles themselves – though excellent in many cases – are not considered to be on par with the top tier of luxury brands, like Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz.
Why is that?
It’s because its brand image is lacking that certain something and even though the brand has its loyalists, it still hasn’t been able to crack the code.
What did Audi do when it grew tired of always playing second fiddle to BMW and Mercedes in terms of image and prestige? The brand decided to establish its technical expertise in the most demonstrative way possible, and they went out and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans a stunning eleven times in thirteen years.
Did it work? Yes. Emphatically so, in fact. Audi stepped up its products while dominating Le Mans, and now it’s considered to be the very top tier of luxury-performance machines.
Infiniti is embarking on the same path. The brand has recently affiliated with the World Champion Red Bull Formula 1 team, and its involvement is going to grow deeper and its technical partnership is going to grow stronger. Just in time, I might add, for the return of Formula 1 to the U.S. market, with this weekend’s United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas, in Austin, Texas.
So yes, parity may have reached the auto business in terms of talent and technology, but the battle between the “haves” and “have-nots” will continue unabated.
And the winners?
The usual suspects.
The ones that have the talent, the technical expertise and a highly defined brand image.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.