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.
I rest my case.
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.