March 7, 2012
Cracking the California Code.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 3/5, 5:30 p.m.) Detroit. I laughed out loud when I read about Chrysler’s latest sales offensive out in California, with none other than Chrysler’s U.S. sales chief, Reid Bigland, pontificating to The Detroit News that “We’re treating it as a unique country. We’re looking at California as its own unique market unto itself.”
Really, Reid? But no, he wasn’t finished. He then went on to say, “It’s a massive market, and it’s also very influential.” And then the coup de grace: “You really need to do well in California to have credibility with your products in the rest of the country.”
Wow. What year is this, 1968?
The domestic automakers have been waxing eloquently about the importance of the California market for 50+ years, at least. I could dig through countless articles written about the importance of the California market over the years if I were so inclined and rest assured I would find quotes from well-meaning car executives who were ensconced in this business decades before Mr. Bigland who said very much the same thing. In a few instances probably verbatim, I’m sure.
What’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong is that there is absolutely nothing new under the California sun when it comes to the Detroit-based automakers trying to figure out the California market.
Taking a brief historic look back, whatever residual goodness was accrued by the Detroit-based automakers during the hot rod 50s and Go-Go 60s - when they were building at least some cutting-edge cars that people actually lusted over - was long gone by the time the Japanese invasion took hold in the mid-70s. Detroit’s head-in-sand approach to the competition, its “lowest common denominator” thinking and engineering, its wholesale refusal to understand the quality imperative and its resolute “not invented here” stance cost them dearly in the California market, and it spread like wildfire to the rest of the country as well.
And by the time the corporate denizens of the Motor City looked up at the scoreboard it was way too late, as they watched in horror as the sales trend line took a steep diagonal drop downward from the late 70s to the early 2000s.
Detroit hustled up design centers in California to get more in touch with the California consumer constituency but it was all just so much window dressing, because the fact of the matter was that until Detroit fundamentally changed its approach to designing, engineering and building cars, and understood why they needed to do so, then success in the California market was out of the question altogether, not to mention in the rest of the country.
Chasing California has been Detroit’s very own Don Quixote story, as in an endless quest that goes nowhere, and I hate to break it to Mr. Bigland & Co., but he and his team won’t crack the California code either.
Why? Because there really is no California code to crack, at least not one that can be put on a wall and dissected so that a solution can be identified and put into place.
In the last few weeks I’ve talked a lot about brand image and brand perception, and that’s the one thing that the Detroit automakers in particular never understood about California. While the Detroit automakers stunk up the joint in California way back when just as the Japanese automakers were growing in confidence and in their ability to deliver bulletproof products that offered outstanding value, Detroit’s image took a deep and fatal hit that they’ve never been able to recover from.
Sure there are isolated good stories out in California for the Detroit automakers, whether it be trucks, or Corvettes and Cadillacs and Mustangs, or the new smaller entries from Chevy and Ford that seem to be showing signs of life in the market, but collectively Detroit is still attempting to crawl out of a deep crevice in California, and no matter what the latest pronouncements emanating out of Auburn Hills suggest, they’re still going at it the wrong way.
Why? Because the Detroit automakers have never understood the whole brand perception thing. And in California if you don’t understand it, you’re doomed to be perpetually irrelevant. Sure, there have been flashes of brilliance from Detroit over the years, but for the most part those have been isolated and almost fluke-like. (If there was ever a region that doesn’t suffer fools gladly when it comes to transportation choices, California is it.)
In California, the land where image is absolutely everything and where brand perception often takes precedence over brand substance, except for a few of those product success stories previously mentioned the image for Detroit-based products doesn’t measure up, wallowing somewhere between “sucky” and “not cool.” Which is still admittedly better than “no frickin’ way,” but not in it doesn’t suck territory by any stretch of the imagination.
There is a flicker of hope that in some respects the power of social media may allow Detroit to break out of this swirling maelstrom of Not Good in California, but guess what? That will only work if the integrity of the product is present and accounted for. (Even the terminally vacuous nature of social media can’t mask a mediocre product for long.)
Memo to Reid Bigland & Co.: The next time you make pronouncements about breaking through in California it might behoove you to take at least a fleeting glimpse at history before you sound like every other unenlightened Detroit sales executive of the last 50 years.
And memo to the rest of Detroit: Here’s a thought. Build riveting looking cars that bristle with cool features that people want. Make them fun to drive and make sure that when someone shows up at your dealer they don’t wander away muttering “never again.”
And make them bulletproof, too, so that the people who buy them will tell everyone they come in contact with when asked, “Yes, I like it and I’d buy another one.”
That’s not cracking some mythical California code; it’s about creating a fundamental desire for a brand that handily transcends all other issues.
And it’s what “standard operating procedure” should look like in this business every single day.
That’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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