Chief Culture Officer: fixing Detroit now

Detroit has never had a Chief Culture Officer, someone who could help the GM, Ford and Chrysler manage the opportunities and dangers that come from culture.  (By "culture" I do not mean the corporate culture of Detroit.  I mean the "software" with which we run the hardware of our world, the shared understandings, assumptions, rules and practices that inform how we see and act.  This culture is rich, complicated and changeable.  It needs someone standing watch all the time.)

There was one man who served as de facto CCO: Bob Lutz (pictured).  On his retirement this February, Lutz was the Vice Chairman in charge of product development for GM.  Lutz was routinely referred to as the "design czar" at GM. And indeed it's clear he cared about design.  He was responsible for the development of the Buick Enclave and the Chevy Malibu. 

It is also clear that this was a guy who ought to have been disqualified from serving in the capacity of a CCO or a design czar.  In point of fact, he knew relatively little about our culture.  What Lutz knew was cars, and what he liked about cars, by all accounts, was speed.  A former pilot for the Marine Corps, he never got over his love of fast planes.  In later life, he purchased and flew a Aero L-39 ex-Soviet jet fighter.  Lutz loved muscle cars.

But if we know anything about contemporary culture, it is that General Motors was out of step.  The Japanese owned quality and used it to take away the sedan.  The Germans owned luxury and used it to take away the upper end of the boomer car market. Detroit struggled to improve on both counts, but it was clear that catch-up was impossible.  It would never do quality as well as the Japanese or elegance as well as the Germans.  It would always be a day late on both counts. 

There was one competitive opportunity remaining, the place were the Americans could beat the challengers.  The real chance for Detroit was design, to make cars that vibrate with the cultural moment as deeply and profoundly as they had in the 1950s (McCracken 2005).  Harley Earl was that man.  It is impossible to reckon the skill with which he spoke to (and for) the culture of the post-war period.  It is impossible to calculate how much money he made for General Motors. 

What Detroit needed was a man or a woman in every C-Suite who understood what was happening in culture.  It needed someone who understood what was happening in the minds of boomers (and why they were so deeply wedded to German luxury cars), in youth culture (when the muscle car culture was back with new and strange differences, and why cars like the funny, boxy little Scion was flourishing), in the life, the heart and the mind of the soccer mom (for many of whom the mini-van felt like the end of everything and especially their youth and their joy).  Detroit needed a senior executive who understood the consumer, and the American feeling for mobility in every sense of the word. 

This person was not Robert Lutz.  Lutz loved cars for his own deeply personal reasons.  He loved muscles cars because they went fast.  Lutz was worse than average as a river captain.  I think it's fairly safe to say that Lutz did not ever grasp the muscle car revival (the one portrayed by Hollywood in XXX, The Fast and the Furious, and now Fast and Furious).  He must have gloried in the power and the glory and all that sound.  Just as surely, he must have been mystified by fact that it was being produced in some case by tiny, winged Hondas.

Forgive us a Christmas Carol or It's a Wonderful Life moment of speculation and let's imagine what would have happen if the Lutz part of the American automobile has been occupied not by Lutz but by Howard Schultz (Starbucks), A.G. Lafley (P&G), Steve Jobs (Apple), Philip Knight (Nike), Tom Kelley (IDEO), people who were very much more alert to what was happening in American culture.  It seems to me obvious that we would be looking at an entirely different Detroit and automotive design that was vastly more interesting, responsive, ecological and, um, profitable. 

But, you might well say, Lutz is retiring.  Clearly, Detroit got the message.  It is reaching out to another kind of fella, another order of CCO.  Correct?  Here's what the Wall Street Journal has to say on the matter.

Mr. Lutz will be succeeded as head of global product development in April by Tom Stephens, who runs the company's powertrain unit, which develops engines and transmissions.  In a cost-saving move, the product development and powertrain operations will be merged, GM said. […]  Mr. Stephens has little input into shaping the design and aesthetic appeal of GM's vehicles. 

I rest my case. 

References

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  When Cars Could Fly.  In McCracken, Grant. Culture And Consumption II: Markets, Meaning, And Brand Management. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Terlep, Sharon.  2009.  GM Product Chief Lutz to Step Down.  Wall Street Journal.  February 10, 2009. 

12 thoughts on “Chief Culture Officer: fixing Detroit now”

  1. Great post. What other industries are completely tone deaf? Detroit is by far my favorite example: they bring out really cool cars during the auto-show that never see the light of day.

  2. Dear Mr. McCracken,

    I’m trying to contact you about a subject totally unrelated to Detroit. However, it’s very much related to cultural anthropology and that space between culture and consumerism.

    I am trying to understand why “bobos” consume French culture. This is part of a long-form piece about the French community in Brooklyn. It seems that, in the case of Brooklyn, wherever you find upper-middle groups (especially the kind drawn to creative fields, yoga, health food stores and good schools) you might also find clusters of French restaurants, wine stores, and then French people attached to them.

    Might you be able to comment on this phenomenon for me? I’m looking at how this “immigrant” group, the French, finds its “American Dream,” by catering to the needs and cultural aspirations, of “bobos.”

    A bit about me: Columbia University graduate journalism student writing this piece for a literary journalism class. I’m trying to firm up some of my observations with formal academic insight.

    Best regards,

    Maile Cannon
    mailecannon@gmail.com

  3. grant

    a beautiful diagnosis.
    i was reminded of your great work on the automobile watching a movie that might (or might not) be paul blart: mall cop, in which his character attempts to impress a girl.

    he points out that people who think that the mustang was named after the horse are wrong.

    it’s named after the jet, he said.

    the woman seemed unimpressed.

    i am not entirely sure that’s the case, but i marvel at it if it is.

  4. The pilot episode of the 2002-2003 television series Boomtown opened with a prologue in which a character observes that the greatest cities of the world were built on its greatest rivers, which leads him to draw unflattering conclusions about the trickling sewer of the Los Angeles river, over which he was presently standing.

    Your metaphorical reference to the corporate CCO-as-river-boat-captain, plying the streams of contemporary aspirational consciousness, put in mind of Mark Twain as this nation’s most-storied navigator, and Jack London as its first, celebrity hitchhiker; maybe opportunisitic journalists are the jean-pool at which to fish for the next generation of CCOs.

    I’d have guessed Milan or maybe Florence for leadership in design and style.

  5. Great post, Grant. I am reminded of conversations a decade ago with grizzled, middle-aged, balding telecoms engineers jumping onto the telecoms/media convergence bandwagon, excited that they would now get to make TV network programming decisions!

    For your Hall of Culture Fame, I would add Martin Lotti at Nike, designer of the Air Kyoto and the Air Max Craze, among others.

  6. I think it would be terribly difficult for a CCO to work for Detroit – not that they don’t need it. “Detroit” is such a mammoth institution, the notion that one person could set the agenda and change decades of built-in biases and entrenched systems is hard to imagine.

    In his own way I think Scott Monty of Ford is doing good work. He doesn’t sit in a corner-office talking about consumers, he’s on Twitter or otherwise engaging consumers directly. The Fiesta Movement campaign is an example of understanding current culture and leveraging it to gain an advantage.

  7. Great analysis Grant!

    As a former resident of Detroit, I believe the lack of consumer cultural understanding on the part of the Big 3 was a problem for too long. Judging by the steep decline in its market share, complacency and arrogance that permeated its corporate culture is ultimately leading it to its demise. Recently, GM (Buick and Cadillac) and Ford (Lincoln) have fared well in the JD Power Initial Quality Studies (IQS) and Long Term Vehicle Dependability Studies (VDS). Its manufacturing has in some cases surpassed the Japanese in quality based on the number of defects per 1000 vehicles (e.g. Harbour Report of GM’s assembly plants in Oshawa, ON and Grand River Plant in Lansing, MI). In the late 1980s, the Big 3 adopted the Japanese Just In Time (JIT) inventory and Total Quality Management (TQM) manufacturing practices. It seems that the Big 3 is constantly trying to play catch-up to the Japanese and Germans. Problem is, it is excruciatingly difficult to change consumer perceptions of those brands. It certainly does not help with the deep discounts that have been employed since GM’s “Keep America Rolling” promotional event after 9/11.

  8. Another great piece!

    Working as an automotive design strategist (not a product planner) it’s my job to be keyed in with broad cultural trends and how they will impact the design of future cars. Although not a CCO (yet), I do the kind of job that a CCO should. One guy from the automotive industry who I think could actually do the job is Freeman Thomas, he of the original Audi TT, VW New Beetle, Lincoln Concept C, Dodge Prowler etc. He’s a guy that really understands the importance of how cars need to fit into the prevailing cultural story to be a success.

    I’ve linked to your article from my blog, giving some background to my approach and the importance of not letting my personal passions for cars and the industry get in the way of the work I do for my clients.

  9. Thanks! Very insightful post.

    I’ve been to Detroit twice & what amazed me the most was how insular their car “culture” is. I live in NJ/work in NY – drive and commute. Driving Northeast roads you see lots of different brand cars/trucks/SUVs/lux – American and all foreign brands- regional exposure to car brands is huge here. NY/NJ also has a great public transit system – trains, subways, PATH, ferries, buses – you can get around w/o a car.

    Detroit, on the other hand, bears the physical legacy of insular car culture manufacturing. I’d say 90% of cars on their roads are American – its all you see. Buses are the only public transit system, and if you need to go somewhere they don’t, and you don’t have an (American) car, well, you’re out of luck. Reinforcement that you must have a car, and by looking around, it “must” be American.

    I can see car executives, such as the genius mentioned in your article, surrounded by only American cars everywhere they goe in Detroit – they’re so cut off from the real driving experience its no wonder GM hasn’t a clue who their customers are. No exposure to anything compounded w/fear of foreign competition results in horrible cars that aren’t designed for their consumer’s needs (Pontiac Aztek comes to mind, as well as the whole “mylifeisover” minivan purchase) Honestly I look at many GM and Chrysler models and really wonder if they’re designed at all.

    Although Ford has its problems, I think their products are designed better because they provide products globally. Go to Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Rome, etc. and you’ll see a good number of Fords parked right next to the Audis, BMWs, Minis. I don’t think Ford would make the mistake GM made to hire a prod dev chief who is so clueless.

  10. It never ceases to amaze me that with all the pondering about whether Detroit is capable of reform nobody ever mentions the big 1986 book by Pultizer prize winner David Halberstam “The Reckoning” where the auto culture of the U.S. and Japan is analysed. (I learned that Europe had ordinary front wheel drive a full ten years before Detroit.) It could have been called “The Warning” and I think it is surely worth reading even today.

  11. This piling on is stirring my contrarian streak. I agree that for years Detroit sedans and coupes were badly designed even when they didn’t have defect issues–they were awkward to see out of, the pedals were not in the same plane, etc., they had ugly interiors and at best undistinguished exteriors.

    BUT Grant is missing the point. They had an exquisite cultural understanding of the market segments that bought pickup trucks and SUVs. It is a kind of cultural blindness to ignore the exurban, rural, and wannabe-rural milieus where the Big THree hit the cultural and product sweet spot over and over again. These also happened to be the only segments of the market where they could earn reasonable gross margins per vehicle given the interaction of UAW contracts and the CAFE two-fleet rule. It would have made little economic difference to Ford and GM if they had come up with the iPod of sedans–they wouldn’t be able to make much money from such a product anyway.

    As for Lutz, I think this post blatantly contradicts Grant’s earlier one where he argued that brands shouldn’t pander to customers but be “disinterested.” Just as Apple imposes its own design ideas and aesthetics out of its own sense of product integrity rather than by doing detailed market research, Lutz tried to bring his sensibility of performance and excitement to the GM line. I don’t think he succeeded, but that’s different from the critique offered in this post.

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