It was slightly after dark on a September night when two buddies and I climbed the fence behind Duval Ford in Jacksonville, Fla. We hopped over with our fingers crossed, hoping no dogs were hanging around back there.
No, we weren’t burglars or vandals. The year was 1964, and we were just three high school kids trying to get a sneak peek at the new Ford Mustang. Every dealership in the country taped newspapers to their showroom windows so you couldn’t see inside, and the new inventory was parked behind the dealerships covered with tarps.
A year earlier, when the ’63 Corvette coupe — the one with the split rear window — debuted, I climbed up the side of a car hauler at a truck stop just to lift the cover and sneak a peek at the front end of the redesigned ’Vette.
Every year, new-car introductions, no matter the manufacturer, were an event — a celebration shrouded in strict security, secrecy and mystery.
You see, back in the day, manufacturers changed their cars’ designs every year. Each model was instantly recognizable from the previous year’s. Some changes were more dramatic than others, but every year’s model was distinctly different in sheet metal appearance than its predecessor. Cars were works of art, not wind tunnel-designed, look-alike-in-the-dark jelly beans.
That was a huge factor in America’s romance with the automobile. And all new-car debuts were at the same time in September. The suspense built up to a fever pitch with anticipation. We kids were more excited than a puppy turning circles on the carpet because it’s about to pee at any moment.
Lost the Magic
I am writing this article here in my home office on a Sunday, one day before the Detroit Auto Show opens. While doing my final research, it occurred to me why the car business has lost its magic and mystique. Even the best manufacturers are more disconnected from consumers than they’ve ever been. And that goes for virtually every manufacturer.
They’ve lost the ball in the sun.
Every time I talk to these people at the highest levels, they talk about market share and price points. Sure, there have been glimmers of genius rising up out of the sea of OEM mediocrity. I point to Cadillac’s early-2000s “Breakthrough” ads featuring Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” This was clearly a commercial pointing at product and enthusiasm vs. gimmicks and price.
You see, nobody really gives a damn whether or not the Darth Vader kid can magically start the Volkswagen with the unpronounceable name. Oh sure, it made you smile and got a lot of YouTube hits, but did it sell cars? The answer is “Yes, probably.” Volkswagen has done a lot of things right recently, which, when you consider the company’s history, is not really in its nature.
Like James Carville would say: “It’s the product, stupid.”
Maybe the Kia hamster commercials qualify as a gimmick. But those ads are great branding spots that also feature, as an afterthought, an effective value proposition for the company’s products.
The Road to Detroit
So, as I mentioned, the Detroit Auto Show opens tomorrow morning. All the manufacturers are holding press conferences to show off new models and outline their detailed plans to increase market share. Of course, most of them are going to fall on their asses — again — because if they all increased market share, we’d sell 20 million new units this year, which “ain’t” “gonna” happen.
If you’re looking for the truth of it all, the smart money is on Toyota, Honda and Ford.
Does General Motors have a real chance? Of course, but only if its management realigns and focuses on “True North” as opposed to all of the distractions they’ve become obsessed with that don’t sell cars.
GM has some of the best product on the ground and in the pipeline than any other manufacturer in the race. They should be kicking it. Its dealers are the best on the planet. But it’s an ill-kept secret that I am no fan of Alan Batey, GM’s interim marketing chief. Everybody tells me he is a good guy. Alan Batey may be a good guy, but so was Gomer Pyle.
“Good guy” doesn’t mean “competent businessman with a head for marketing.” I think this guy is 50,000 fathoms over his head. The Peter Principle would apply here. Mark Reuss is the right guy, a car guy, a competent journeyman executive. I met him and I honestly like him; but for reasons unknown to me, he’s not doing what I know that he knows he needs to do.
Is government ownership handcuffing these people? Maybe I am too tough on GM’s management and the direction it’s taking. After all, it’s not just them. Automobile manufacturers need to stop screwing over their dealers and stick to building great cars. Don’t worry about our damn buildings and our furniture. We — the dealers and car people — bailed your bankrupt butts out of trouble more than once. Get out of retail. You’re bad at it.
It’s Not Too Late
Okay, I’ve told these people what I think of them in classic Ziegler style: Stand in the street at high noon and draw. Of course, it’s all opinion. But I base that opinion on the fact that GM’s performance has been substandard in comparison to its direct competitors. With Toyota and Honda out of the game for nearly two years, GM did little to capitalize on its home-court advantage like the two other domestic manufacturers (one and a half, actually). Of course, that’s my other second opinion.
On a positive note, I believe General Motors is in a position to regain its former glory. It has a great dealer network, great refreshed product and several extremely competent executives at and near the top. These individuals could drive sales and increase market share if they were turned loose.
I predict one of two outcomes facing General Motors this year: It will either move forward to regain former market dominance, or it will spiral downward toward bankruptcy again with no bailout to stop its fall.
Right now it appears to me like the company is operating under the same failed plan, but with different players operating a recapitalized company. The fact they’re profitable is a given. In today’s great car market, what manufacturer wouldn’t be?
Any financial hiccup in the economy, fiscal cliff, a bankrupt European Union, anything at all, and, Poof! Let’s hope GM focuses on what matters. Of course, I might be wrong. That was my third opinion.
Reading The Detroit News this week, I couldn’t agree more that, collectively, manufacturers are paying attention to mid-cycle product makeovers more frequently. They are introducing 43 redesigned or totally new models this year. That’s twice as many as last year.
That’s one thing the Japanese have excelled at is rapid redesign. When the Honda Civic drew a lot of criticism from consumer magazines for not meeting their standards, within six months it had a major redesign with more changes still being developed on the fly. Nobody is sitting on a three- or five-year cycle anymore.
The Stingray Arrives
Meanwhile, GM has unveiled the new Corvette “Stingray.” The wow factor is over the top on this one. And, to the OEM’s credit, it did it right. Reuss was onstage beaming as he presented the car to the press, saying it’s the reason he works for General Motors.
I’m beaming, too. For years, I’ve said that GM has pissed away every shred of brand equity in the vault on undeserving cars, with the exception of the Stingray. I said it to Mark LeNeve when he was president of GM. I said it to Mark Reuss three years ago at the NADA Convention and Expo in San Francisco. I’ve also written it in numerous articles and have repeated it in every speech on the subject. And those of you who follow my speeches, blogs and articles, you know I’ve said it for years: “Bring back the Stingray.”
It’s sort of like when I bullied the Germans into building a retro version of the Dodge Challenger when they owned Chrysler. I am confident the reason they built that car was me goading them about it.
The best thing about the Stingray launch is that GM kept it somewhat secret until the big reveal. Sure there were sketches and camouflaged spy photos, but no one leaked the actual design until show time. Brilliant!
Perhaps you remember how they screwed up the Camaro launch. We had the car’s photos, and it even starred in movies nearly five years before being built for dealer showrooms. By the time the car showed up, it was already stale.
Truthfully, it’s refreshing to see manufacturers returning to more frequent redesigns and new body styles. The main reason I stopped driving Escalades was because, after owning nine of them in 12 years, it was like trading in for the same car over and over.
If the manufacturers would return to September-only unveilings shrouded in mystique and mystery, I think it would inspire greater brand awareness. That might not be practical, but it would work.
And while we’re at it, stop renaming your cars. I’m in the industry, and I can’t even keep up with all of the name changes. Toyota hasn’t renamed the Camry or the Corolla, and the Prius is now a household name. Cobalt was a perfectly good name and was just on the brink of building some brand equity. Then, boom, they changed it.
What Ford needs to do is cut out the alpha-numeric names on its Lincolns. Excuse me, American cars have names. Stop trying to be European. If it was up to me, all American built cars would have names and the engines would be designated in cubic inches with the engine displacement emblem on the front fender or the hood.
Every manufacturer should do some real research here. I believe Ford would discover that the public doesn’t even know the names of most of the cars in its lineup. It needs to give these cars an identity and stick with it. That’s why I applauded Alan Mulally when he brought back the “Taurus” name.
With that said, I still hate the Lincoln grille. It’s a beautiful car from every angle except head-on.
Changing of the Guard
As of Feb. 1, Peter Welch assumed the position of president of the National Automobile Dealers Association. Although the official version of the NADA’s press release said he was selected after a unanimous vote by the board on Jan. 8, I sent him a congratulatory e-mail on Dec. 27 — back when it was still a big secret.
I’m sure it still surprises many people how much inside information I receive from so many directions.
I am cheering right now because I’ve performed keynote speeches for Welch several times when he was the president and director of the California New Car Dealers Association.
And I know his track record. This guy is a fighter and he will move the organization to stand up for dealer issues.
I am a friend of Phil Brady, former president of the NADA, so I will never say anything derogatory about him. However, the NADA, in recent years, has drawn a lot of criticism from many dealers I know for backing away from key issues. Rightfully or wrongfully, it doesn’t matter. The perception of a weak association is out there, and it’s a large segment of the franchised dealer body.
Of course, the past five years have been a difficult time for everyone, with the manufacturer bankruptcies and GM and Chrysler disenfranchising dealers with government pressure. The NADA was in a no-win situation; no matter what it did, someone was going to be pissed off.
I sincerely hope Welch takes charge and addresses these issues, real or perceived.
What I really like best about him is he has a background as a car guy and attorney. He brought down Chrysler in 2011, and it agreed to pay $900,000 to settle when it opened a factory-owned dealership in Los Angeles that was in direct competition with its own dealers — an evident violation of state franchise laws. Chrysler also agreed to sell the dealership.
Many people feel that overly cautious, fraidy-cat lawyers are the reason the NADA has limped off of the battlefield. I only wish the association could have heard what dealers were saying when the chairman announced last year that the NADA was going to be more cooperative with the manufacturers. By the way, you dealers need to be more vocal if you have a disagreement.
I’ll tell you right now, Welch’s style is to go head-on with anyone on behalf of the dealers’ interests. An effective lobbyist, Welch went to the California Legislature and repeatedly won concessions for California dealers.
Where are the NADA’s priorities these days? Is it possible that this national organization has backed off of some issues because of booth sponsorships at the convention? Whether that is true or not, it is a perception shared by many. I believe the NADA should poll its dealers with the right questions to get the real answers.
And to make matters worse, NADA University is becoming a direct competitor in the market, and certain vendors are exclusive, while others are excluded.
I am presenting a workshop at this year’s convention in Orlando titled, “Guerilla Marketing Using Facebook and YouTube.” I have been a presenter at most of the conventions since 1987 — always in the Top 10. This year will be the last time I present, so please come to my workshop and say “hello.”
There’s no big issue with the NADA, nor am I making some kind of statement. And I am certainly not retiring. A lot of work goes into the workshops I lead, and I just want to enjoy the conventions and visit with friends. There are literally thousands of dealers, dealership people and factory executives whom I know on a first-name basis. Debbie and I get a thrill out of visiting with people we rarely get to see face-to-face.
Yes, I remain a loyal friend, advocate and supporter of the NADA. Everything I’m writing here is in a context and spirit of goodwill. This is the dealers’ national organization. You need to support and contribute to it. Attend the convention and speak out. If you don’t like something, work from the inside to change it. Hey, the organization is there to work for you.
Personally, I believe Welch is a breath of fresh air. I wish him and the organization all the best.
It’s no secret how I feel about Carfax. I think it’s disreputable and anti-dealer. Of course, I might be wrong. But in a recent bulletin to its dealers, BMW changed the requirement that BMW Certified use only Carfax. Now, the automaker’s dealers can use either AutoCheck or Carfax as of Sept. 1.
To be clear, I am not pimping for AutoCheck. However, I am highly suspect of any manufacturer or vendor that has an exclusive deal with Carfax and excludes other vehicle history reports.
Ziegler Is Not Retiring
It cracks me up. I received three Lifetime Achievement Awards at three conferences in 2012. Is someone insinuating that it’s time for me to retire? Excuse me, I will never retire. My plan is to die onstage in front of a cheering audience. Right in the middle of a standing ovation I will just suddenly grab my heart. Argh! Thud! There goes Jim.
I am speaking, training, writing, blogging and still working in dealerships. Retirement is for people who don’t like what they do. At the convention, Debbie and I will be in Booth No. 4179. Please come see us.
Jim Ziegler is the president of Ziegler SuperSystems Inc. E-mail him at [email protected]
Jim Ziegler ranks among the industry's most recognized and honored trainers, consultants, authors, speakers, and forecasters.View Bio
Jim Ziegler ranks among the industry's most recognized and honored trainers, consultants, authors, speakers, and forecasters.View Bio