August 19, 2009
GM’s transparency offensive goes too far.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 8/19, 8:00am) Detroit. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times in the last decade of doing Autoextremist.com: The automobile business is unlike any other endeavor in the world. It’s frantically complex, it’s relentlessly challenging, and it’s all-consuming - and that’s even before you attempt to market a vehicle.
Then, it really gets crazy.
You can think you know all about this business from afar (the Internet has unleashed a horde of instant armchair auto “experts”), and you can believe that you understand its nuances and challenges by reading everything you can get your hands on, but until you’re immersed in it on a daily basis, it’s safe to say that you know what you don’t know.
In the midst of this swirling maelstrom of craziness that the auto biz has become - what with the global economic meltdown bringing two of our domestic automakers to their knees while delivering crippling blows to many others - we’re seeing desperate auto executives taking desperate measures to ensure their survival, and in some cases it’s frightening to watch.
Corporate soul searching has grown to almost mythic proportions at some of these companies as they spend half their time wondering “Why us, why now?” while spending the rest of their time flailing away throwing everything they can get their hands on at the wall to see what sticks.
Our growing national obsessive compulsion to “share” everything isn’t helping either. How we as a society went down this road of thinking that informing everybody about everything in our lives - no matter how mundane or pathetic - is not only acceptable but cool will be fodder for another column, but it seems that this affliction has grabbed hold of one car company in particular, and it’s not pretty.
GM is taking this corporate soul searching stuff to a new, unprecedented level, and it’s getting ridiculous. They’re blogging, they’re sharing, they’re airing dirty laundry, they’re engaging in public hand-wringing and mea culpas - in short, the “new” GM is bordering on becoming the annoying neighbor at the party who just won’t shut up.
GM’s latest effort involves something called “the Lab,” a website on gmblogs where GM designers will “share” some of their designs so that the community “out there” can hold hands, pontificate and provide instant feedback that will be better than the traditional clinics. Or something like that.
Really, boys and girls? You actually believe this is a good idea? Really?
This after GM Design was almost permanently neutered by legions of brand marketing blowhards who knew absolutely nothing about the art of design - or the business - and proved it by orchestrating a series of piss-poor vehicles that arrived on the street with a thud and that contributed to GM’s ultimate downfall?
And now, just as GM Design has finally – finally – been brought back to life by the superb guidance of Ed Welburn, and freed of the hoary constraints of brand management mediocrity that almost swallowed the design function whole thanks to Bob Lutz - who basically told the rest of the corporation that “if we’re ever going to get out of this hole great design will lead us” and to sit down and shut up until further notice, thank you very much - and he was so absolutely right by the way, you’re going to invite the public to weigh-in on what GM Design is working on?
As Vince Lombardi once famously said, “What the Hell is going on out there!”
How is the sharing of advanced design ideas with the horde of armchair auto “experts” on the Internet going to improve GM’s lot in life? I’ll answer that one for you: It won’t. As a matter of fact it’s an indication that GM’s “transparency offensive” has not only gone too far, it has gone off the deep end.
Ask the average armchair auto “expert” out there what he or she wants in a car, and they’ll say something like this: “I want a car that looks like a Lamborghini, has the emissions of a daisy, the carbon footprint of a butterfly and costs no more than $10-$12,000. Oh, and by the way, when I’m done with it I expect to be able to bring it back and get a new one for the same price I paid three years ago.”
Sound silly? Of course, but then again reality doesn’t much enter into the equation when it comes to the world of armchair automakers. I should know. I sat in on countless focus groups and product clinics where the public was asked to weigh-in, and the sum total of their contribution to the process of attempting to move the ball forward - after basically saying Imports = Good, Detroit = Bad - amounted to nothing.
A big fat zero.
In those kinds of settings group think inevitably takes over, and thousands upon thousands of dollars are wasted for little or nothing in return. And GM thinks unleashing the chat room herd mentality on their future design executions is actually going to yield anything different, or better?
I’m sorry, but what rock did you guys just crawl out from under again?
I read over some of the bullshit statements that GM put out about “the Lab” and I just cringed. You guys need to take a deep breath and move slowly away from the keyboard and go back to designing vehicles. That’s what you’re paid to do, that’s what you went to school for, and you have all the tools necessary to do great work right within the halls of GM Design. As a matter of fact you’ve been doing a superb job of it of late, so please, please don’t screw it up by organizing kumbaya campfires on the Internet so the hordes can all weigh-in about what they don’t know about while flaming each other relentlessly in the process.
We get it. You screwed up, you had to get bailed out by the U.S. taxpayers, and now things are going to get demonstrably better, just you wait and see.
But at some point GM has to remember that they’re in business – or should be anyway – to actually make cars and trucks that are desirable and that people want to buy. The constant communication and reaching out, the relentless public self-flagellation, the mea culpas on top of mea culpas? I say enough already.
Transparency in this business is one dimension of the bigger picture. When you need to be transparent and it’s appropriate to do so, fine, have at it.
But there’s also a point when you have to step back, stop the public powwows and the informational hand-holding and believe in your mission.
And then shut up and do your frickin’ job.
Thanks for listening.
See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" hosted by Autoline Detroit's John McElroy, with Peter De Lorenzo and friends this Thursday evening, August 20, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv. Subscribe via iTunes:
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See another live episode of "Autoline After Hours" hosted by Autoline Detroit's John McElroy, with Peter De Lorenzo and friends this Thursday evening, August 20, at 7:00PM EDT at www.autolinedetroit.tv.
Subscribe via iTunes: