By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. When you spend enough time in these parts the stark reality of a Motor City winter hits hard. Last year it was the Big One, with the most snow accumulated around here - over one winter season - in recorded history. (Boston, unfortunately, is getting a compressed version of what we had, only over the last six weeks, not over four months. Not Good.)
And this year, we have more sunny days than usual, but of course along with that has come intense, bitter cold. No, I didn’t acquire a meteorological degree off of the Internet over the weekend, but this winter has featured more severe winds than usual, which in turn churn up some impressive salt storms, which leaves salt dust hanging over the roads in ghostly clouds suspended by the frigid air. It’s always a nice touch.
With those winds, too, comes a cornucopia of various things blowing across the road without warning – urban tumbleweeds if you will - from stray pieces of trash in varying degrees of size (and even trash cans themselves), to abandoned Christmas trees that have managed to escape their appointment with the shredder in order to attack your vehicle without warning. That’s a nice touch too.
But then again there are other tumbleweeds to take note of around here as well, the kind that roll along with an automobile industry that’s often a swirling maelstrom of chaos at any given moment, punctuated only occasionally by lucidity and brief moments of brilliance.
These industry tumbleweeds roll across our bow in a slow-motion cadence, as we wonder what they represent in terms of significance to this business, or if they matter at all. Whether it concerns executive changes, new product strategies or just plain boneheaded moves, these industry tumbleweeds confound and confuse, and at times derail things just enough to make it all interesting.
For instance, everyone seems to be frantic about Apple poaching Detroit-based engineering talent and making noise about developing automotive technology these days, maybe even a car. There seem to be two polarized camps on this subject. One suggests that Apple – being the invincible arbiter of all things technical when it comes to the consumer – has the smartest guys and gals in the room and the biggest pile of money, and that they can pretty much do whatever they want if they put their minds to it. And with their pitchforks raised and at the ready, and their superior intellect – just ask ‘em – needing a new challenge, they are sure to be successful at whatever suits their fancy, whether it means building an electric car of their own, or just burying Detroit altogether for the sheer sport of it.
The other perspective lies with the “here we go again” theory, as in here we go again with a tech company trying to manufacturer big, complicated machines that they have no experience with. And even though they have to come to Detroit to grab talent that understands how to make it all work – just as Tesla did (something the pitchfork-wielding denizens of Silicon Valley conveniently forget) – they will ultimately bite off more than they can chew.
The reality is somewhere in the middle. Is Apple up to something? Yes, obviously but what that is, exactly, remains to be seen. I think, for starters, that Apple wants to own the center stacks in the interiors of cars. They strongly believe in this notion of “seamless connectivity,” so that their existing customers can keep their Apple-dominated lives synchronized, even when they step into their cars. And Apple wants one manufacturer to agree to hand over the design and engineering of their center stacks, so that they can make the world a better place for all of us, as is their wont.
Will a manufacturer buy into it? I can think of a few that should, given their piss-poor attempts at customer connectivity to date, but at this point it’s another giant “we’ll see” that will roil this business for a good while.
Yet another industry tumbleweed that never seems to go away? How about the pitiful performance of Infiniti in the market? Yes, they sell cars, but the Infiniti image is woefully lacking next to the established luxury brands. Nissan has tried everything and the kitchen sink to move the needle – including hiring Johan de Nysschen, who actually did start to make some headway before departing for Cadillac - but Carlos Ghosn’s interminable, “it won’t be long now!” pronouncements have officially worn thin.
Ghosn has promised time and time again that the good times for Infiniti are just around the corner, yet this is a brand that has underperformed year-in and year-out for as long as I can remember. It’s clear that de Nysschen ran up hard against the intransigent bureaucracy that strangles Nissan/Infiniti from within, and his departure - along with others before and after him – confirms that there are built-in problems with Infiniti that are longstanding and powerful. And guess what? The one constant throughout years of Infiniti’s underachieving? Carlos Ghosn. Infiniti’s future success – or lack thereof - is completely up to Ghosn. Only he can determine Infiniti’s fate, and I’m not sure he’s up to the task. Right now the brand, in terms of industry tumbleweeds, is hovering somewhere between being a trash bag blowing by, and the proverbial couch sitting in the left lane.
One more industry tumbleweed? The constant Sturm und Drang going on at Honda. Much has been made of the shakeup at the top of Honda - CEO Takahiro Hachigo is in and CEO Takanobu Ito is out, effective next June - but since Honda changes CEOs every six years like clockwork, it’s very little sound with not much fury, and it signifies absolutely nothing.
This is a car company that has gone off of the rails of late in terms of quality, and one that has suffered from a sullied reputation because of it. Honda sells plenty of vehicles here, but it has given up notable market share to Nissan in this market. It’s also clear that the company is veering dangerously close to becoming a Soulless Enterprise, one that has somehow misplaced its once-glorious mojo.
To make matters worse, the Honda brain trust has repeatedly demonstrated that they are functionally incapable of understanding where Acura needs to go, let alone understand what it should be in the first place. And the NSX isn’t going to be the quick image fix they’re looking for, either. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it one thousand times, if Acura is supposed to be “the best” of Honda, why doesn’t it come across that way? And why can’t anyone over there come up with a plan for the brand that actually has staying power?
To me it’s very apparent that the Japanese brain trust at the top of Honda has no understanding of what they’re up against in trying to compete against Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, et al, with Acura. And unless they’re willing to set aside their own preconceived notions about what they think should go on in the luxury-performance segment, as opposed to the reality, then the whole Acura thing will continue to be an industry tumbleweed that rolls on forever, destination unknown.
And finally, my column last week seemed to generate a big response, but I found most of the negative commentary directed at me or at Cadillac for being so bold as to try something different to be from people that Cadillac’s new ad work simply isn’t aimed at.
It’s a phenomenon that consumers of – ahem – a certain age better get used to. Advertising, marketing and social media exercises aren’t necessarily directed at you. In fact most of it isn’t. (And if that weren’t enough, most of the future product programs from these manufacturers are being designed for the Asia-Pacific region first, not here. The ramifications of that are just starting to be felt here, but believe me it will not be pretty from here on out.)
Some of you readers out there also assumed that Cadillac’s high-concept creative work was influenced by Chrysler’s recent work, and I vehemently disagree, as in, really? Just because a car company does a high-image spot it’s automatically ripping off Chrysler? That’s some truly warped logic being employed there to come up with that conclusion, and frankly, it’s unmitigated bullshit too.
The Chrysler work set out to achieve two things: Make some noise for a long-dormant brand – which worked briefly with Eminem and bombed horribly with Clint Eastwood and Bob Dylan - and prove to FCA’s Supreme Leader that Olivier Francois is a genius who should be given free reign. Both of these things were accomplished, at least to a degree, although Chrysler’s brand image is still somewhat vague – and that’s being charitable - with the latest work on behalf of the redesigned 200 as bad as auto advertising gets. As a matter of fact, it pegs the “pathetic” meter.
For the record, I stand by last week’s column even more so after seeing the work in context with the Oscar broadcast. It is fresh, dramatic, boldly visionary and uplifting, signaling a new day for America’s most enduring luxury automaker. And The Daring: No Regrets spot featuring Jason Wu, Anne Wojcicki, Njeri Rionge, Richard Linklater, and Steve Wozniak, complete with Edith Piaf performing Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien was even more impactful than the launch spot I discussed last week.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.