Lousy Marketing—Not Lousy Cars—Killed Detroit

Long before the CEOs of the Big Three hopped aboard their private jets, they presided over the biggest marketing failure in American history.

Many miles ago, long before Detroit started losing billions a month, it lost something even more important: its roadmap to the American unconscious.

So while we’ve heard all the arguments for the impending demise, it’s high time we took Detroit’s slow-motion suicide for what it is: 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.

I wasn’t surprised when Detroit’s million-dollar men cranked up their corporate jets on Friday, popping warm nuts while strategizing about how to land some cold cash.

That 360-horsepower blunder—which may very well have sealed the fate of the Big Three—capped off decades of marketing incompetence.

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

The image destruction started when their brands began to exhibit the worst kind of corporatist behavior, summoning up dark memories of the tobacco industry. They battled against every safety initiative, starting with mandatory seat belts. They tried to beat back higher CAFE standards. They lobbied against electric cars and alternative fuel.

As consumers were increasingly making purchase decisions based on the practices of the company behind the product, the domestic auto industry became a loathsome choice.

Detroit’s bad actions hurt it with a huge part of the market—the more than 30 million people in Richard Florida’s “Creative Class” who work with ideas, live in urban areas, and are more progressive. Even the more traditional consumers who stuck with American cars felt abandoned.

The jerks running the companies didn’t help. Your CEO is a marketing statement, and in an era of visionary leaders celebrated by the media—other than Lee Iacocca, who retired in 1979—the guys running the show were overcompensated, colorless zeroes.

From 1974 through 2000, GM was piloted by Tom Murphy, Roger Smith, Bob Stempel, and John Smith, failures whose names are recalled only as poster guys for deck-chair rearrangement.

As these weak-kneed leaders came under pressure for their practices and products, they turned psychologically inward. It all culminated with Michael Moore’s Roger and Me in 1989, a national display of corporate paranoia. An industry whose birthright was independence came to represent villainous bureaucracy.

And in a colossal marketing mistake that scraped away any chance for individuality, Detroit’s legions of PR firms continued to let its brands be bundled as the Big Three. Can you imagine Apple permitting itself to be bundled with Dell and HP this way?

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Ironically, though, as its reputation plummeted, Detroit’s cars actually improved. The Detroit Free Press notes that Consumer Reports recently found that "Ford's reliability is now on par with good Japanese automakers." And J.D. Power ranked Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, GMC, Mercury, Pontiac, and Lincoln brands' overall quality as high or higher than that of Acura, Audi, BMW, Honda, Nissan, and Volvo.

This is an epic advertising failure, attributable to Detroit’s stubbornness and arrogance. The Big Three kept working with a small group of the biggest and most boring ad agencies, refusing, until recently, to work with anyone who didn’t have car experience. Leo Burnett has worked with GM since the 1930s; J. Walter Thompson has worked with Ford for more than 60 years.

I’ve worked in advertising for a while—thankfully, never on a car account. And I will tell you that it’s well-known in the industry that working with Detroit is torture. The Big Three's demand for mediocrity is legendary. They have formulaic rules—the “running shot” of the car has to be a certain length in every commercial—and they have so many levels of creative approval that even a crash dummy would have trouble surviving the process intact.

That’s why, even though GM, Ford, and Chrysler spend more than $6 billion a year in advertising, it’s tough to conjure up a single memorable spot. Their uninspiring advertising speaks to an America that barely exists anymore. We’re more diverse, more urban, more media savvy. We appreciate irony and obliqueness, we demand that our sensibilities be respected and indulged. Detroit insults us.

Take this 2008 commercial for the Dodge Grand Caravan. (The way Detroit names its cars—with all the originality of meeting rooms at a Westin—is another story.) Here, some reluctant participants at a family reunion are transformed in a beatific bunch by a ride in the Caravan. (Not exactly the imagination worthy of a bailout.)

Detroit should have sought the best talent in the world. It needed to open up to smaller, independent agencies that are the idea factories for the industry. And it should have commissioned film directors, not car hacks, to direct its 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?

Imagine if Detroit had created compelling advertising that showed its workers living the American dream, and had gotten the UAW to pitch in? The sweet stroke of marketing would have made everyone who drives a domestic car feel virtuous, ennobled. Think how much credit Starbucks gets for paying its coffee growers a few measly cents extra.

Finally, Detroit's marketing failure extends all the way to your neighborhood: the dealership network. The retail industry knows that to survive, it needs to amp up the experience and add entertainment. But car dealerships look like post-apocalyptic empty shells that survived a neutron bomb.

Why didn’t Detroit push its fat and rich dealers to leverage the power of architecture and hire Frank Gehry to create a new paradigm? Think about the branding statement that would be.

The services leave something to be desired, too, falling alarmingly short of what you get in comparable imported dealerships. Quick example: I checked the hours of my local Buick and VW dealers. Buick’s service department is closed on Saturday; how thoughtful of them. VW is open on Saturday, and also opens earlier and closes later during the week.

Seems like a basic marketing equation to me: If you’re not going to be there for your customer, your customers won’t be there for you.

Adam Hanft is a decoder of the consumer culture and our branded planet. He blogs for The Huffington Post and FastCompany.com, and has been published extensively, including in The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Civilization, Radar, and the back-page column for Inc. He has appeared on CNN, the Today show, and many other media outlets. He is also the co-author of Dictionary of the Future. Adam also decodes the culture as founder and CEO of the marketing and branding firm Hanft Raboy.