Is Smart Money Betting on GM?

Interview with Jane Genova:

THE NEW YORK TIMES puts the question out there: Can GM make it back?  I would reframe the issue as: What kinds of odds are the smart-money folks giving to a GM reset?

To answer this question, I caught up with Julie Roehm who has down cold the auto industry. Roehm is a marketing guru known for creativity and the know-how/courage to implement ideas.  She was able to do just that in the car world of Detroit, both at Ford and Chrysler.  Among her homeruns was making the Ford Focus cool.  Currently, she travels the globe doing marketing for a range of industries.

Here is my exclusive interview with Roehm.

JG: Let’s cut to chase.  We taxpayers who are GM shareholders want to know the odds for a GM comeback.   What do you see?

JR:  I see potential.  Plenty of it.

JG:  How about quantifying that.

JR: Jane, I can’t.  There are too many variables, some we already know such as the established global competition, the emerging new competition in India and China, and consumer preferences.  There are also the variables that we don’t know yet and probably wouldn’t be able to predict anyway.  They fall into the category of financial-markets expert Nassim Taleb’s “Black Swans,” that is, developments that are unexpected, both in their occurrence and in their impact.

Given all those variables, anyone who’s not a reckless gambler would hesitate to discuss the GM situation in hard cold numbers.

JG: Fair enough.  Then, please give readers details about the “potential.”

JR: The potential for GM to be born-again is staggering.

For example, it can create a fresh scenario for itself just as Ford did with the Mustang and later with the Focus.  The raw materials are the Chevy and the Caddy [The Cadillac brand seems to be a cat with myriad lives.]

Buick, though, will likely be a challenge in the extreme.  That challenge will become more difficult long term as the key target markets for this brand – the Silent and Baby Boom generations – have less income and may even stop driving.  You might put it this way:  Buick is “your father’s car.”  It has so much legacy that it would be difficult to make over.  But it’s possible, of course.

There is also enormous potential in the commercial-truck market.  The company knows how to be utilitarian.  The product is solid.  It also knows how to connect in special ways with personal-use individuals as well as construction workers, farmers, small haulers, and movers.  Throw in fuel efficiency and this could be a grand slam, in the same way that the mini-van and K-car were for Iacocca’s turnaround.

There’s more, of course.  But I won’t pile on remarks about every segment and every brand.  That isn’t the issue.  The issue is: Can or even does GM want to pull this off enough to change.

THE NEW YORK TIMES article cites “GM’s bureaucratic culture and consumers’ disinterest. ”  The issue is: Can and does GM want to overcome those constraints?

JG: How would you recommend removing those obstacles?

JR: That has to be start with a shift in the mindset.  That shift will generate a shift in the organizational culture.  That, in turn, can spark consumer interest.

That kind of shift requires a leadership overhaul in the areas of product development, design, operations, and marketing.

JG:  What kind of mindset would GM need?

JR: The mindset of a consumer company such as Lego, Pepsi, and Apple.  Not the mindset of a manufacturing company.

JG:  Okay, what is the mindset of a Lego, Pepsi and Apple?

JR:  The mindset is all about making it possible, probable and rewarding for consumers to co-develop, co-design, co-operate, and co-market product.

Here’s a little case history.  Lego found its way back to being a blockbuster, loved brand by making consumers partners.  All of Lego’s digital sites are committed to consumer input and to co-creating consumer experiences.  Lego even goes to the extent of having online age-appropriate categories of games for children.

This approach has been called “private-label media” by Booz and Company consultants Matthew Egol, Leslie Moeller and Christopher Vollmer. [An article on that titled “The Promise of Private-label Media” by the three is published in the Summer 2009 edition of Strategy+Business.]  Companies using it want to maximize consumer participation.  What frequently results is that they wind up developing their own unique media space.  To leverage all this, they form partnerships with ad agencies, media companies, and database experts.

In addition to Lego, Kraft, General Mills, Apple, and Procter & Gamble are also moving into private-label media.  This approach could be exactly the right move for GM.  Quickly it could make that leap into thinking and behaving like a consumer player versus an old-line manufacturing company.

JG:  Anything else?

JR: Yes.  Let me hammer home that the digital tools are there and more are being developed all the time.  From what I have witnessed traveling the globe consulting is that businesses, non-profits, and even governments not leveraging the digital to become “consumer organizations” put themselves at a distinct disadvantage with all their constituencies.

JG:  On behalf of readers, I thank you for providing this perspective on GM.  They are taxpayers and they are antsy.

Jane Genova

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