Who really killed the American Car?

Perhaps it isn’t all about the product. Adam Hanft makes the point that clumsy marketing and mediocre corporate culture with no sense of its own creative force led to “a marketing failure, probably the biggest one in history. It takes years of monumental incompetence to squander the biggest, deepest love affair the American consumer has ever had.”

“Car companies have so many levels of creative approval that even a crash dummy would have trouble surviving the process.”

Hanft suggests a couple of transformational ideas, that may sound obvious, but they hint at the most basic transforming precepts. 1. If what you’re doing (advertising) is not working, first stop. Then do something else. 2. Be honest about your weaknesses, and turn them into benefits. Authenticity works.

“Detroit should have sought the best, talent in the world. They needed to open up to smaller, independent agencies that are the idea factories for the industry. And they should have commissioned film directors, not car hacks, to direct their spots. It happens in Europe all the time. Turn Judd Apatow, Spike Lee, Spike Jonze and Michael Gondry loose and see what happens.

I’ve also believed that smart marketing could have turned Detroit’s union hurt into an emotional benefit. It’s absolutely amazing to me that for decades, Detroit took the heat for paying decent wages, and providing health care and pensions. Hey, isn’t that what big companies are supposed to do? Hasn’t Wal-Mart been pilloried for precisely the opposite?”

Of course, this is a marketing viewpoint, locating the source of failure in marketing. An engineer might say “it was the product, stupid.” A transformational designer might look at the whole mess and find the Big 3 as enterprises were unwilling to change, and their inertia ran out with the economy. They failed to recreate their organizations when the times were good, when they had their best chance.

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