Roy Roberts inherited Pontiac when GM announced the merger of Pontiac and GMC truck. Roberts never really “got” Pontiac, at a time when the entire marketplace was enjoying a modern performance evolution. While the computer controlled, supercharged Grand Prix GTP was attracting an entirely new and much younger buyer, Roberts and his marketing team completely missed it, never winning any serious respect for the car.
Lynn Myers, a Pontiac “lifer” who by never taking a risk, woke up one morning to learn she had been appointed Marketing General Manager. She continued to miss the evolution of the “computer tuners,” who had by now become the next generation of real Pontiac enthusiasts. They had learned how to combine a laptop and a few “bolt-on parts” to really make the GTP fly! To this generation – in image – the GTP was indeed the closest thing to come out of Pontiac since the first GTO. And on the subject of the new GTO, Myers and her team completely missed the magnificent heritage opportunity. She missed a market full of real Pontiac “lovers” who were pleading for a new rear-drive performance coupe. She had no idea what it meant to be called a “GTO.” In fact, she told me once that the new ’04 GTO was never to be called an “M-Car.” When I asked what is an “M-Car?” she replied, “A musclecar, and we’re not going to ever drag race it. We’re going to use it in Sports Car Road Racing.” I said, “Oh my God” and walked away shaking my head.
Myers failures were even more dramatically demonstrated when she introduced her new performance marketing guru Bob Kraut, who had been recruited straight from Madison Avenue, and almost seemed proud that he knew nothing about cars or previous Pontiac imaging. As product manager for the Grand Prix line and the new GTO, Kraut would literally embarrass himself, as knowledgeable automotive press and real car-enthusiasts knew more about the subject than he could ever learn. Directing the “No M-Car” concept, Kraut visited event after event only to anger and confuse the “real” Pontiac family who so wanted to like the new GTO. As a consumer product marketer, he never learned what the letters GTO meant, let alone understand its image. Worse yet, he really didn’t even want to learn what made Pontiac a Pontiac.
Bob Kraut was a product of the Corporate “GM Villain” philosophy. Board Member John Smale, sometimes known as the “Toothpaste King” because of his previous Proctor and Gamble experience decimated the entire GM marketing department by exclaiming that, “You guys are all wrong, people don’t care which end drives the car, they only want to know how good they’re going to look and feel in it.” With his new hand-picked marketing czar Ron Zarella, fresh from the Eyeglass Business, they started on a dedicated effort to hire outsiders who proudly knew nothing about the automobile business. Needless to say, this noble experiment was a disastrous failure – one more time proving the “Show Me A Man” theory.
Pontiac is gone and now General Motors has filed for bankruptcy. Pontiac was lost because management lost sight of what made a Pontiac a Pontiac – its image. Bankruptcy protection and the bailout by the U.S. government will not relieve GM of the need continue to develop and market saleable cars. Right now, “The dogs don’t like the dog food.” GM’s image has come to symbolize inferior workmanship, uninspired design and second-tier technology; this leading to a declining market share and now bankruptcy.
What was true back when GM held more that 50 percent of the U.S. market is even more true today, “It is not what you are, but what they think you are.” GM’s biggest challenge moving forward is its image. They must once again establish the image of an innovative industry leader; a car for every buyer and every pocket book. They can do this through inventive efforts like the Chevrolet Volt. However; most importantly, GM must focus its marketing efforts to reinvent a new kind of “Chevy”…a new kind of “Buick”…a new “Caddie” …and even a new “Jimmy.” Hell, I don’t drive and I don’t love a “GM.”