Author Archives: Julie

How Companies Get Us Excited About Their Cars

Old Dogs, New Tricks

2011 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 Carbon Limited Edition. General Motors©

How would you like to build your own Corvette engine, at the plant? Or maybe you’d like to badge your Subaru the way a Girl Scout might adorn her uniform? Or maybe you’d like to play a version of the old classic “Slug Bug”? These are some of the latest tactics employed by some “old” automotive brands to win the attention of new customers.

Let’s start with what could be the ultimate badge of Corvette enthusiasm: Building your own engine. GM is offering customers who order a 2011 Corvette Z06 or ZR1 to choose an option that allows them to help assemble their car’s LS7 or LS9 engine at the General Motors Performance Build Center in Wixom, Michigan. The retail price is a whopping $5,800 — which is more than a fully assembled 385-horsepower GM Performance ZZ4 crate engine. But that gets you in to build the engine under the supervision of a skilled technician and you will also receive the usual warranty. The customer has to travel to the plant on their own nickel, of course.

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Corvette buyers can also attend driving school in Arizona or Nevada, watch their car being built at the Corvette assembly plant in Kentucky, and even take delivery of their new car at the National Corvette Museum. But these ideas are not at all revolutionary. When I was at Chrysler we had similar programs for Viper owners. I have to admit that I think there are plenty of Corvette fans, not to mention lots of wannabes, who are going to jump at this opportunity. Who wouldn’t love to be able to say that they built their engine and get a badge on the manifold to prove it. If Chevy can charge a little extra for this, as well, more power to it.

Speaking of badges, Subaru has introduced a novel idea with its Badge of Ownership. In a social network-like fashion where we join groups or “like” various ideas or products, Subaru has found a way to incorporate this personalization on your car without making it look like a Times Square billboard.

The badges are less vehicle-oriented and more about representing one of your personal interests, while also telling the world how many Subaru’s you’ve owned. You can badge your vehicle with one of many representative icons, from snowboarding to music, animals, the environment, or even to proclaim your sexual orientation (yes, a rainbow for the LGBT community). Subaru is even asking for suggestions for new badges. I wouldn’t doubt if this goes viral among Scooby fans, as the badges are catchy.

VW was hoping for a viral hit with its Punch-Dub game, a “reboot” of the original “Punch Buggy” game of the 70’s. It launched this campaign during this year’s Super Bowl, though we have not yet seen too many people punching the Online you could add this to your social networks, earn points, and win contests. While it is unclear whether this really took off, it was a clever way to try and extend the brand experience. The television commercials were fun, including the one for the VW minivan taking a tour through the neighborhood so the kids can watch the pedestrians sock each other.

Saving Chevrolet Means Sending ‘Chevy’ to Dump…REALLY?

This was reported in the NYTimes today and I have to say that I am flabbergasted! Shocked that they would call this “branding” and confounded as to why they would choose this as a way to resurrect the brand. Calling your car a Chevy is one of the most flattering things you can do. It shows a personal relationship with your car. Like when people call me “Jules” instead of Julie. Those people know me well, we have a kinship…to make it a penalty ($0.25 in the “swear jar” for those GM employees who use the word Chevy instead of Chvrolet) is ludicrous and shows a complete lack of the emotional connection of the car and its owner.

The story stated that an email had gone out saying that the use of the word Chevy is no longer acceptable…all in the name of branding. The story also made some great points about other brands that have nicknames…Coke (Coca-Cola), Mac (Apple), and KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken). All of those are great examples of brands that have become strong enough to warrant their place in personal slang – a sign of real ownership and love by its fans. If this is the kind of work that the “newest” agency is doing, then I really fear for the brand.

But I’d probably feel worse if I actually owned a Chevy…

In Memory of …Birds?

So this Memorial Day, as we reflect on the heroes that have helped make our country great, we are also making plans to kick off our summer properly and for many that means..road trip. But as I was thinking about places my family could run off to this weekend I was sent an invitation for a group on …Facebook that read: XXX invited you to join the Facebook group “STOP BUYING BP GAS UNTIL THEY STOP/CLEAN THE OIL SPILL”. Hmmm..I appreciate the notion but will not buying gas really fix the problem? For anyone living under a rock, there is an oil spill/leak/spew of epic proportions happening in the Gulf of Mexico that is now devastating wildlife homes and impacting fisheries, fishermen and many other trades that depend on that region.
All kinds of reactions have occurred as a result including a survey done on the front page of the USA Today last week that asked what you were going to do differently as a result of the spill. The number one response was…nothing. There were others including, “drive less” and “eat less fish” that were mentioned but I had trouble understanding how we would manage that or how it would fix the problem at hand. I mean, even if I drive less, or if everyone drives less, we won’t stop all together and until there is a real alternative en masse, we still need to pump gas, right? So, I pretty much threw the notion of not driving out the window.

But then I received the invitation to the Facebook group mentioned above. And it was sent to me from someone I know really well. Somehow that made the USA Today survey feel that much more significant. But to boycott gas, or even BP is not to just hurt “big oil” but the thousands of small business, mom and pop franchisee owners that run the individual stations. And what about the tourist industry? Are we willing to sacrifice them too? Or are you and the family going to bicycle your way to your weekend vacation spot?

The answer is obviously in new technologies and the scaling of these technologies. It is in the hope of the Chevy Volt, of the fixes for and continued success of the Toyota Prius, and of all the new vehicles that will use alternative fuels. The unintended consequences of trying to punish oil by curtailing travel without a viable alternative is in many ways, irresponsible. So is the lack of prevention that allowed the oil to leak in the first place. But let’s face it, any of the big oil companies could have been the one in this position. And the real concern should be first, cleaning up this mess and then how to prevent future spills.
Then, let’s decide how best to move forward progressively. Going cold turkey does not seem like the answer as too many people are affected negatively from these rash decisions. Does shutting down oil drilling help gas prices? Make energy cleaner? Make us less dependent on cultures whose business practices we disagree with? Are we best served by punishing, fining, boycotting or even shutting down BP (or an oil co for that matter) or by perhaps using this tragedy to engage BP in development of alternatives that can be brought to bear more quickly?
BP’s public perception has obviously been greatly damaged by this event and they will likely be very open to going above and beyond to correct it. So, can we not take this negative and turn it into a positive by using this public awareness and energy to get BP and their counterparts to the table to not only prevent future tragedies but to figure out alternatives? Or have we become a society so bent on punishment, fining and regulation that we can’t begin to trust that a large company might want to use its vast resources to find alternatives that are good for the environment, the economy and themselves too? Just food for thought as you sit in your car on your way out of town this weekend….

And The Hits Keep Coming

It’s been all over the news: Last week the Lexus GX 460 was given the extremely rare “do not buy” rating by Consumer Reports. On the heels of Toyota’s PR disaster surrounding recalls over cases of unintended acceleration, the once-esteemed carmaker has stepped in it again.

Toyota’s response was typical: A calculated surprise that betrayed a more general confusion. The initial statement offered to the media read, in part, “Lexus’ extensive vehicle testing provides a good indication of how our vehicles perform and we are confident that the GX meets our high safety standards.” This textbook case of corporate blah-blah-blah was followed up with a promise to retest all its SUV’s and Crossovers, while its PR staff worked overtime giving reporters vague answers to questions about the situation, most of which boiled down to, “We don’t know.”

Frankly, from someone who watches marketing and PR responses as carefully as I do, this was a bigger train wreck than the problem itself. Toyota did manage an admission by the end of the week and we can consider this a step in the right direction — at least the company seems to have learned something from the $16.375 million fine levied earlier this month by the NHTSA, punishment for its failure to notify the agency of “sticky pedal” defects. A recall of the GX was then issued on Monday, and regardless of the alacrity displayed by the engineering side of the business, I still think Toyota hasn’t mastered the art of professional crisis management as well as it should by now.

I have written a few times in this blog about steps that could be taken by Toyota to mitigate these issues before they spiral out of control. I keep watching to see if its response strategy will improve, yet I’m still waiting. Toyota and Lexus still have the same, lame Facebook pages that boast over 160,000 aggregate fans, but are rarely updated — a missed opportunity. The Toyota Twitter account has gone from 18,000 followers last month to just over 20,000 as of today, but by comparison Ford has nearly 30,000, and Southwest Airlines blows them out of the sky at 1,000,000. Toyota does have information on the recall on its Web sites and seem to make it easy to contact the company with questions or issues, but this is pretty basic stuff. Where’s the real outreach to a public that has grown legitimately skeptical?

If Toyota simply asked for people’s thoughts, ideas on how to better engage with them and re-assure them — even if it decides not to take the advice — I think the company would be well on their way to shedding some of their cold, closed, uncaring, image. I hope they are at least tracking public reaction via social listening tools, a simple first step towards being proactive.

As part of my current work as a marketing consultant I meet with agencies and vendors that work for Toyota. Just the other day I was with such an agency that serves some of Toyota’s markets outside of the U.S. In discussing this issue with them, I kept coming back to, “Why are they not being radically transparent?”

The response from the agency was that the powers that be in Japan do not allow U.S. management to do so. Certainly, I can understand the legal implications of providing too much information. These days it seems like everyone is suing Toyota. But I still believe that the long-term cost of all this ill will is going to be far more expensive than a little more transparency, even if that may result in a few more short-term dollars spent in settlements.

“Radical transparency” means going above and beyond the expected levels of communication and response, in a way that is audacious and shocking in its clarity. For instance, a couple of years ago, Jet Blue found itself in the hot seat for stranding flyers on one of its planes for an obscene amount of time. It responded in a way that was so out of character for corporations that the reconciliation effort spawned huge positive sentiment, overshadowing the initial consumer anger. First Jet Blue published a full-page letter of apology in major newspapers taking complete responsibility without trying to offer excuses. They it committed to drastic improvements and backed it up with something they called the “Jet Blue Customer Bill of Rights.” Then it began to publish regular results on its improvements and setbacks. Good or bad, we knew it was trying, knew how and what it was doing to improve, and as customers we felt kept in the loop.

I witnessed this issue first-hand a decade ago. The Ford Explorer tire debacle began while I was at Ford and I watched it unfold. Ford struggled with these same issues of transparency, and that situation wasn’t even as cut-and-dry as what Toyota has been dealing with, as Firestone was seen as at least equally culpable. It’s no secret that Explorer sales have struggled each year since the crisis.

Today we live in a world where opinions flow instantly and can gain a volume and intensity that’s downright dangerous, much more so than Ford experienced in 2000. Social networking platforms like Twitter have forever changed the rules for crisis management. In the situation Toyota — and now its revered Lexus brand — faces, where the blame is clear and concern is valid, there’s no reason to think things will wind up any differently. I just hope that someone in Japan realizes that protecting its closed-off culture in a world that’s embraced open, radical transparency will never inspire or engender trust. But then again, should yet another disaster come their way, perhaps the third time will be the charm.