Road to Perception

New General Motors ads say, in essence, "We don't suck anymore"

 

Have you seen the new General Motors ads? If you're like me, you may have been struck by the undertone of the message as much as, maybe more than, the presentation itself.

The gist of this newspaper ad campaign, which started in June, says, in essence, "Hey, car buyers, take another look at us. We don't suck anymore."

Now, of course, it doesn't say exactly that, but the ad campaign, called "Road to Redemption," is described in a press release from GM as "an unconventional effort to attract American consumers who don't consider GM products when shopping for a new car or truck."

Roughly translated that means the company is apologizing for those 1980-90s abominations of performance, fit, and finish failure that include memorable nameplates such as Chevette, Cavalier, and (fill in your personal choice). The ad says, "Thirty years ago, GM quality was the best in the world. Twenty years ago it wasn't." It goes on to confess to "learning some humbling lessons from our competitors." Their market research says 40% of the car-buying public won't even consider a GM product.

I'm impressed by the apparent attempt at honesty and public recognition of the reality the automaker faces. I've grown tired of company officials who try to offer profound explanations for why they and their companies screwed up, all the while scrupulously avoiding contrition for their failure to provide paying customers with promised services.

This is a pleasant change.

But changing perceptions, even if they no longer bear any relationship to reality, can be about as hard a job as there is.

GM knows that. The J.D. Power and Associates 2003 Initial Quality Study said GM was the top-performing domestic manufacturer. Fourteen GM vehicles ranked in the top three of their respective segments, including three that came in first.

Consumer reaction? Apparently, the silence was deafening.

This started me thinking about our industrial machine community. It's tough to fully get the message across that you've done something with your machines that provides a strategic or competitive advantage for customers. It's even tougher if you've had performance issues that diminished your company's standing in your market.

Years ago I took a manufacturing job where the problems--quality, safety, profitability--were profound, well-entrenched, and seemingly overwhelming. We fixed most of them faster than even the company expected, but it took a lot longer to convince a disillusioned set of customers that it was a permanent fix. Some of them never came back.

More than a few of you wear an automation hat, a marketing hat, and even the profitability hat. You know--maybe better than any of us--how hard it can be to right those wrongs. Well, let's face it, there really aren't any options. You just set out with the goal of being perceived as the best of the best. The sooner you start, the sooner you realize the goal.

What combination of safety, performance, cost, reliability, and support can make your value proposition stand out? Find a way to provide a genuinely unique value to customers, and you make it hard for them not to consider you. Doing that, you also avoid the dangers of trying to "me-too" what the perceived leader does. That's usually a huge mistake.

It's helpful to keep in mind that the GM lesson works in reverse, too. Grab a leadership position in the eyes of your customers and make your competitors scramble to overcome that. If I'm in a race, I'd rather have people chasing me than vice-versa.

I may make some fun of GM's past shortcomings, but I do hope they actually have found the road back. Let's hope they can stay on it.

E-mail Joe at jfeeley@putman.net.

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