Tag Archives: Brand architecture

Five Suggestions for Bob Lutz

Dear Mr. Lutz,

Congratulations and condolences on your new role. It’s exciting and fraught with peril. This is the chance to do things right, and show the world that the “new” GM is something more than a hollow, feeble version of the old company. You don’t know me, and you never will, but I would like to offer some free advice. You see, I really want you to succeed. Although I am not an automotive marketing expert, it occurs to me that GM has done nothing but listen to automotive marketing experts for decades, and where did it get you?

So here are a few ideas that you might want to consider as you begin to turn this battleship around:

1. Simplify. What is Chevrolet? There are 19 different nameplates, and that doesn’t count all the hybrid versions, varieties of horsepower and coupes vs. sedans. You have beginner cars and mid-price cars and SUV’s and muscle cars and sports cars. And now you want to bring in the G-8 from Pontiac. Who can keep track of all of those? And who can afford to market all of them? GMC = trucks. I get that. That works better.

2. Think about women. A lot. My 17 year old daughter doesn’t think that cars are for guys. When she turned 16, she spent countless hours on-line researching cars. And she wasn’t just looking for cool colors. She had makes and models down cold. My niece had no fear of a manual transmission, because for her it meant she could get more car for less money. As for me, I am addicted to the Cars section of the Sunday New York Times. Women have huge purchasing power, we know how to do our homework, and we don’t like the perception of  a “boys club”. Make sure you have women in senior roles at each of your ad agencies. Believe me, when campaigns are created by men, for men, it shows.

3. Forge a new path. Don’t say that you want Buick to be “like Lexus”. Maybe the world doesn’t need another Lexus. Explore new categories. Surprise and delight us.

4. Worry less about “crafting messages” and more about having a conversation with your customers and prospects. This is hard for marketers who are used to owning the brand. Let go. It’s a transparent world and one individual opinion–good or bad–can literally be heard around the world. Good brands are essentially tribal. Find your tribes and tap into their enthusiasm. And for heaven’s sake, remember your employees. We have all seen what bitter, overworked, stressed-out employees can do in the airline industry .

5. Think service. Long after the sale, the car owner’s only contact is with service people. To the extent that you can control the service departments at dealerships, ensure that these experiences are good ones. You probably can control your corporate customer care centers, and these should be staffed with people who adore your cars, know how to tap additional resources, deal with cranky or frustrated people, and are empowered to take action when it is warranted.

That’s all for now. Five things is all anyone can remember anyway.

We’re rooting for you!

Warm regards,


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The End of Pontiac: A Cautionary Tale Of Brands That Were Loved Too Much

CNN just reported that Pontiac will end. This is further evidence of the frequently reported fact that that GM has”too many brands”. Which leads me to wonder how and why that could happen.

GM is a classic house of brands:

The GM brand portfolio

The GM brand portfolio

Today (prior to the demise of Pontiac), GM offers a total of 101 vehicles across a collection of 8 brands. Toyota, the world’s biggest car company, has 3 brands (Toyota, Lexus, Scion) and 75 vehicles, 59 of which are under the Toyota brand. Lexus is a fairly limited luxury brand, and Scion is a tiny niche brand, so the Toyota name stands out loud and clear. Is that a factor? Was it  sibling rivalry run amok, with no real parental control? 

I recently had the very good fortune to speak to a former GM senior marketing executive, and he provided support for my hypotheses and gave me additional background on how and why GM brands became a problem rather than an advantage.

GM was essentially formed as a holding company, which is the way that a house of brands is built. Historically, the individual car companies had a great deal of autonomy, which was balanced by strong central planning from the finance perspective. This worked quite well while the US was dominant in the auto industry. Over time, as the business became more competitive, GM adopted professional product management practices.

Branding at this point was at the the product line level (e.g., Camaro, LeSabre), not the general car company. With 50 or 60 different product brands clamoring for attention, it was confusing for the consumer and the sales people. Enter Toyota, and its simple message of quality.

Needless to say, the center could not hold, and the fragmented system of product managers ended. Focus then returned to the general car brands. And each car brand, of course, had its own advertising agency, which was fully invested in protecting its client no matter what the brand perceptions or sales data might suggest. Plus, each car company had its own system of brand tracking and success factors that probably obscured looming problems. That’s what I meant about sibling rivalry.

Like any parent, it was virtually impossible for GM to tell one of its offspring that it was loved less than the others, so despite increasing evidence that there were too many brands, senior management held on. Yes, I know that it was much more complex than this–dealership pressure, union issues, manufacturing and R&D commitments, etc. And from what I hear, the shut down of the Oldsmobile brand was painful in the extreme.

Is there a moral to this story? Let me suggest the following:

  • Companies with different brands that compete against each other owe it to themselves to establish a single, consistent approach to brand metrics. Diageo, for example, is famed for this.
  • Don’t let tradition and emotion and years of promises to sell more product get in the way of business decisions. Just like in certain families, an intervention is sometimes called for.
  • An architecture built on a master brand can offer real power and efficiency, despite the protestations of your ad agency or brand identity firm. And you can have a house of brands that breaks into master branded product portfolios.

I’m sad about the end of Pontiac. I was sad about the end of Oldsmobile. As an American of a certain age, I still had a sense of these brands standing for different things. It would be good to see GM move through this painful process as quickly as possible. Let’s get past it, and then find a way to celebrate and share the word about the resurgence of value and quality from GM and all the Detroit automakers.

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Filed under Brand architecture, Brand strategy, General Marketing, Market Research

(Brand) Closet Cleaning

I love to clean out closets. It’s generally a manageable task, and one that I can complete in a day. (This timeframe does not, of course, apply to the closets of my two teenage daughters.)

As I survey the wreckage of the economy we face today, I can’t help but think that a little brand closet cleaning is not a bad thing at all. Some of this has happened already, with the demise of well-known retailers such as Linens N Things, Circuit City, and others. Another category that is shrinking rapidly is what I call “bling brands”, which grew along with all the other wretched excess that we saw in the years leading up to our latest downturn.

Unlike authentic, luxury brands, which have staying power, bling brands are created in a bubble. I consider luxury brands to include Tiffany, Hermes, BMW, Rolex, Ritz-Carlton, Chanel, among many others. Bling, on the other hand, makes me think of Hummer, an endless supply of $6,000 designer handbags with no recognizable or distinctive style, diamond encrusted watches, platinum cell phone cases, and celebrity perfumes. The stock market calls a certain investment trend during tough times “a flight to quality” and the same is true for high-end consumer/luxury brands. They may experience a dip in volume, but authenticity and reliable, unmatched quality is what lasts.

Finally, what about the endless line extensions and unnecessary variations that have sprung from the feverish imaginations of brand managers. How many flavors of vodka or rum are really necessary? How many varieties of cell phones? Or types of credit cards? Yes, I know, the name of the consumer marketing game has been to dominate shelf space. But in a time when the focus is on essentials, your marketing dollars have to work much harder. I think now is a wonderful opportunity to take a long hard look at the real value of an overstuffed product portfolio. 

So one of my New Year’s wishes is for marketers to clean out all the worn-out, poorly-fitting, faddish, or dated clothes–oops, brands–in their closets. It’s amazing what a little extra room on the clothing rod can do for the spirit. It actually inspires fresh new thinking and may lead to true product innovation

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Filed under Brand architecture