Robert Lutz and marketing malpractice

GM's CMO Robert Lutz was recently told an awful truth:

In my group it is just uncool to drive a GM car — even if they are as good as the imports.

He replied:

I guess it depends whether you have your own personality or whether you are a lemming-like follower of current trends.  I think an audacious and bold person with a mind of his or her own would go to a dealership and see that our new vehicles easily trounce the foreign competition. . . . It's uncool to drive an import.

It's hard to assess how many ways this violates the marketer's handbook…but I'm going to try.

1)  We don't savage consumers for not buying the product.  We don't call them "lemmings."  In a competitive, choice-rich marketplace, the fault always lies with us.  The consumer is always right, which means, in this case, he is never a lemming.  Lutz appears to have invented a new version of "blame the victim."

2)  We don't call the consumer "uncool," and especially when our cool credentials are, well, perhaps not as robust as they might be.  A GM executive accusing consumers of being uncool, this is like John Russell, manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, accusing Mike Scioscia, manager of the Angels, of being bad at his job.  Dude, win a few games, then we'll talk.

3)  Lutz betrays the first principle of marketing know-how.  Statistically, "bold and audacious" consumers make up a tiny fraction of the marketplace.  Mr. Lutz, I'm confused.  This is your new strategy, tiny segments?  This is your path to recovery?  Poor you.  Poor GM.  Poor us.  (Our tax dollars now fund Lutz's "philosophy.")

4) But there's a deeper, dare I say fatal, flaw in Lutz's thinking.  When he suggests that if consumers only had "minds of their own," I can hear the ghost of the great French scientist Emile Durkheim spinning in his grave.  As Durkheim told us, consumers actually share minds.  We travel in groups.  No one has a mind of their own.

What we have instead is culture.  It is the ideas contained in culture that helps us understand what "transportation," "cars," "General Motors," "Buick" mean in the world, and to us.  Even when we are early adopters.  Even when we are "audacious and bold."

Eric Felten of the Wall Street Journal understands this very well:

Cars get us around, of course, but they also, in their look and feel, capture a cultural outlook, a spirit, even a national identity.

So we don't expect consumers to be heat seeking individualists, ready to break away from the herd and reach out for products that no one else quite understands.  All of us understand the world (and the products in it) as a result of the cultural ideas in our heads.  We may belong to an avant garde group and cultivate cultural meanings that are exceedingly novel and rare.  Or we may hew to the most conventional minded market.  Or we exist somewhere on the continuum in between.  But we don't think for ourselves in any absolute sense.  We do not work denovo.  Culture shapes who we are and what we want.

And what culture tells us about GM cars is that they are, very often, uncool, unattractive and unreliable.   Felten calls them, "Cars reliable in their shoddiness, famous for interiors made of cheap plastic…" These are cultural meanings of the brand that GM has created over several years of bad marketing, manufacture and design.  And if we don't like these meanings, then we change them…with good marketing, manufacture and design. 

I can't speak to the manufacture or the design, but the marketing part of this equation is pretty straight forward.  Marketing is "meaning manufacture."  It sources meanings in our culture, ones that will make the brand vibrate with currency, interest, and sometimes urgency.  And then through great advertising, new media, experience engineering, etc. it makes these meanings resident in the brand.  It is a simple act of meaning transfer.  Aristotle understood it perfectly well. 

This is when it begins to make some sense to have a CMO (or indeed a Chief Culture Officer) who knows something about the culture in question.  And it is on balance probably a good thing if this person is not Mr. Lutz.  As I argued a couple of weeks ago, it rather looks as if Mr. Lutz has his own quite fixed ideas of the meanings of a car.  Worse, he is not to alert to the other meanings that GM cars have, or through good meaning manufacture, could be made to have. 

I know this is bad tempered and hectoring of me, but golly, Lutz is the man in charge.  At a time when our tax dollars hang in the balance, it is very plainly time for GM to appoint someone else in his place.  Not to do so is marketing malpractice. 


Felton, Eric.  2009.  Intelligent Design: To Save Itself, GM Needs Style.  Wall Street Journal.  July 17. 

Kiley, David.  2009.  Why GM named 77-Year Old Lutz CMO.  BusinessWeek.  The Autobeat.  July 15.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2009.  Chief Culture Officer: fixing Detroit Now.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  April 14.  here

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

5 thoughts on “Robert Lutz and marketing malpractice

  1. Tom Asacker

    “a simple act of meaning transfer.”

    Not so simple, and not really a transfer. More like a co-creation, with the result being a personal narrative.

  2. peter

    There’s a possible campaign for GM, in this statement:

    “I think an audacious and bold person with a mind of his or her own would go to a dealership . . .”

    I’m thinking something like:

    “Buy GM and show yourself to be audacious and bold with a mind of your own!”

    Well-executed, that campaign should garner a lot of lemmings, right there!

  3. srp

    Lutz also ignores the problem of signaling. Even if you, a button-down conservative sort, happen to like the way you look with a nose ring for purely aesthetic, formal reasons, getting one will cause people to infer various untrue things about your values and character. You might decide to put up with this on a conscious basis, but to be unaware of the signals one sends with these choices is likely to be dysfunctional. Similarly, a GM car sends a signal that many, many people don’t want to send. GM needs to fix that, but they’ll probably be dead before that happens.

  4. Roo

    You know… The sad part about this is that I think you really NAILED IT. They just don’t get it. When Oldsmobile went under in ’04, I felt like a little piece of me died. Like losing a distant relative or a celebrity. With Pontiac, the same thing… And I never even owned one! But, I grew up with them. It’s a shame to see GM stray so far from success… Especially, now that WE’RE co-signing onto this continuation of b.s. Not sure what to make of those comments… ‘Marketing myopia,’ denial, ‘fronting’ or having absolutely no sense of where they are in the marketplace. Whatever the case, it strikes me as unacceptable.

    If GM vehicles ‘easily trounce the foreign competition…’ really?? REALLY?! Then maybe that ‘success’ is in areas that just don’t matter as much in impacting sales.

    Thanks for calling him on it, and it wasn’t bad tempered/hectoring to me.

  5. Grant McCracken

    Arvind Venkataramani
    (grant, your blog is acting up. tried to comment and it just gave me missing images and nice spinning wheels.)

    Re your gatorade post: Lutz IS apparently behind some of GM’s moves – a designer friend of mine (self-employed, not a big name) got cal…led in to Detroit recently – partly because he obsesses about cars on Twitter. Their (GM’s) words: “we haven’t been listening to you in 20 years, we’re sorry, and it’s time to fix that”.

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