Al Ries Slight Off on GM’s Brand Woes

Who am I to disagree with Al Ries on branding? No matter, I’ll take a swing at it anyway.

In AdAge, Ries takes GM to task (may need a subscription) for not creating strong brands, which in turn was triggered by an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “How Detroit Drove Into a Ditch“. The WSJ article places the blame on Detroit’s failure to understand the nature of the Japanese competition:

“Just as America didn’t understand the depth of ethnic and religious divisions in Iraq, Detroit failed to grasp — or at least to address — the fundamental nature of its Japanese competition. Japan’s car companies, and more recently the Germans and Koreans, gained a competitive advantage largely by forging an alliance with American workers.”

Ries disagrees:

“Nowhere in this entire article is a mention of Detroit’s failure to build powerful brands. Rather the blame is placed almost totally on problems in the factories.”

I have to say, I side much more with the WSJ on this one. Just where, I wonder, does Ries think brand comes from? He seems to think it’s somehow seperated from what happens on the factory floor…that brand is somehow magically concocted in a Madison Avenue boardroom and lives and thrives independent of the crap that comes off the assembly line. It’s a troubling throwback to the arrogant assumption of marketing control that I believe is at least partly responsible for the situation we currently find ourselves in: you don’t have to worry about being good, as long as your advertising is. Consider the examples of successful brands that Ries uses as examples:

“It seems to me that the fundamental nature of Detroit’s Japanese competition is its ability to build brands. Toyota stands for reliability, Scion for youth, Prius for hybrid, Lexus for luxury. “

It’s not a marketing ploy that has determined that Toyota stands for reliability. It’s superior quality control. I question Lexus’s exclusive claim to luxury, or Scion’s claim to youth, but their success in both markets comes directly from the appeal of their products and an acceptance of this by the target market, not by any particular marketing genius. And the success of the Prius as the definition of hybrid comes from engineering excellence and the ability of Toyoto to make it into a practical vehicle. This isn’t marketing, this is just being better than the competition.

Ries seems to suffer from the delusion that brands can be unilaterally built. In the hyper connected reality of today, brands can, at best, be mutually agreed upon. Brand is a label that is connected in the cortex. All the advertising in the world can plant some mental seeds, but if the reality doesn’t connect, those seeds wither and die. It wasn’t Detroit’s ineptness in advertising that killed them, it was their ineptness in every single aspect of their business.

The hole that GM (and Detroit) has dug for themselves has been built over the last 40 years. And contrary to Ries’s opinion, Detroit has been extraordinarily successful in creating brands. Consider the cultural legacy of the Mustang, the Corvette, the Cadillac, the Jeep. These are brands that were once rich with meaning..with mental connections that resonated and rang true with enthusiasts. But the meaning has been eroded away because the products didn’t live up to the promise. And the reasons had nothing to do with advertising, it’s was squarely rooted in what came off of the factory floor, and everything that contributed to it: shoddy workmanship, antagonist relationships with workers, squeezing vendors for every last cent, arrogant management, lack of respect for customers and poor service in the dealer network.

What is true is if the product doesn’t deliver on the promise, word spreads much quicker now. And perhaps that was the final nail in Detroit’s collective coffin. The new connected marketplace allowed us to call bullshit in a way that is heard much further and much louder.

It’s not that Detroit can’t build a brand. It’s that they just can’t build a very good vehicle.

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