General Motors: The Year Ahead by Bob Lutz

GM's To-Do List for 2010


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The editors at Edmunds' Inside Line have graciously given me this virtual space to write about virtually anything I want, so I thank them for the opportunity, and I'll tell you how I'm going to use it.

What follows is a to-do list for General Motors for 2010. It's technically not a list of New Year's resolutions, because that is such a trite and tired format...and, what's more, New Year's resolutions are rarely, if ever, kept. These are things that GM can, must and shall do this year. So, without further ado....

1. Remain focused on the product above all else.
GM builds cars and trucks and crossovers. That is what we do. In 2009, we were given an opportunity to continue doing so, and we must not squander that opportunity. Therefore, we are resolved, if you will, not to lose sight of the fact that if we don't build the best cars, trucks and crossovers on the planet, that opportunity will go for naught.

It may sound simple, and you may think it would go without saying, but it's hugely important and it's the most essential element that all of us here need to keep top of mind as we begin 2010.

2. Remain focused on the product above all else.
That's how important it is. I'm listing it twice. After that edict, the rest of this list is not going to be in order of importance. And, you could argue that we can't just be great to win consumers. With our image challenges, we've learned the need to be exceptional.

3. Change minds.
This is the big one. It's the most important thing we have to do, other than #1 (and #2). We have to make more people aware of what's going on in relation to #1 (and #2).

Let me digress for a moment and say that I've seen it written that GM's marketing strategy is based on the fact that the consumer is too dumb to know what great vehicles it makes. I take huge issue with that. That's an example of the media trying to ascribe some of the old GM arrogance where none exists.

It's not arrogant to think you have great vehicles, so long as you do, and to try to spread the word about them. No one at GM has said that every vehicle we have is world-class — we still have room to improve. And no one at GM, including me, has said that the consumer is too dumb to realize how good our new products are. All we've said is that the consumer perhaps is unaware of said fact. That's a far cry from being dumb.

And the typical consumer's unawareness is a result of one of two things. First, the consumer literally may not know about our products and what they offer; or second, the consumer knows of them but chooses not to consider them, for a variety of reasons ranging from a bad previous experience to a relative's bad previous experience to a neighbor down the street who has a relative who knows someone else who had a bad previous experience. In short, it's reputation.

We face an enormous reputational deficit, one that took decades to develop and one that, unfortunately, we earned. And it's going to take a long time to turn it around, but we certainly can do it. That's what our satisfaction guarantee and "May The Best Car Win" campaign were all about. Those are just the first steps to putting consumers on notice that we believe in the appeal and quality of our vehicles and we feel they deserve more consideration than they're getting. And increased GM consideration numbers from here at Edmunds and other sources show that the campaign was a very good first step.

From here, the plan is to continue to put our message out there, aggressively, and take away every last excuse people have for not trying a Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick or GMC product. We're stepping up our marketing and communications spending to ensure that, and we'll be reaching more and more consumers, especially on a grassroots level, to make sure they make an informed choice when they decide upon their next vehicle.

The best and perhaps quickest way to improve a reputation is to improve relationships with customers, because that is the nature of this business. You want customers to fall in love with your vehicle the moment they lay eyes on it, and you want them to stay in love with it when they own it. One customer at a time, one vehicle at a time. You can change the opinion of generations that way.

4. Be vigilant about quality and technology.
Of course, if you don't have the quality, reliability and durability dialed in, that's what destroys relationships and reputations. We know that as well as anyone, and other companies have also found out (or will find out) about this the hard way. We will be vigilant about quality, as well as leadership in advanced technology and fuel economy — we'll have new entries in the small-car segment that are aimed at best-in-class.

As we ramp up in the new year, we face a lot of challenges in adjusting to fewer brands and fewer nameplates and moving ever more quickly. We simply cannot afford to let things slip in the process; we cannot overlook one detail that would adversely affect quality, reliability and durability. One step up and two steps back gets us nowhere.

5. Design is still king.
I've been saying this ad nauseum for years now, so I don't feel the need to go into great detail. Suffice it to say that, like quality, we cannot afford to let our guard down on great design. It's not a difficult concept to grasp: The only way to turn an auto company around is to build vehicles that people want. Period. And the only way to build vehicles that people want is to design them so they look good. Period.

That's not to say that's the only criterion. See quality, reliability, durability and reputation, above. But you can have the world's best quality and the world's best fuel economy and the world's longest-lasting vehicles, and if all that comes wrapped in ugly boring packages, you won't sell any.

I'm proud of the strides GM Global Design has made in recent years, and the awards we've won show that people have noticed. And we will continue to put that message out (see #3). Just as we will continue to empower GM Global Design and give it the freedom it needs to create. Ed Whitacre, Tom Stephens, Ed Welburn and I are in lockstep on this one.

That's the beginning of a pretty good to-do list. There's a lot more. Continue to pursue leadership in advanced technology and the electrification of the automobile, get the Chevy Volt on the road, pay back the loans on or ahead of schedule.... I could go on, and I will go on, just not in this space. I should also point out that all of these things, and more, will be done against the backdrop of developing our four brands to their full potential.

We realize, and this may be a little inside baseball for you, that "General Motors" itself may be what someone could label a "damaged brand." (Someone might say that, but not me!) Even if that were true, and it may be, that alone would not be the reason we would choose to emphasize our brands more than the parent company. The reason for emphasizing the brands is that we're proud of them, and their heritage, and their vehicle lineups, and what they represent: a glorious past and a potentially bright future.

Besides, there may still be that one person out there who says, "GM? They went bankrupt! Took money from the government! I'm not buying any GM car! Chevrolet? Yeah, Chevrolet's OK. American car, right? I'd look at a Chevrolet..."

I'd put that guy in an Equinox in a heartbeat.

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