The Car Guy

Posted on June 23, 2008 by

Bob Nardelli

…It’s a term affectionately thrown around for automobile CEOs.

We were involved in some work about 2 years ago with a company that developed dynamically interactive communications pieces for 2 of Detroit’s big auto players. It was very interesting, and I found myself fascinated with the kind of ideas that were being brought to the table to market some of the cars and heavy trucks that they were focusing on. They were fresh, and they were media driven. It began a renewed interest in the auto industry for me. Lee Iacocca’s biography is one of my favorite books, and I count it as one of those reads that I needed to absorb cover to cover. Needless to say, the current state of affairs of the domestic auto industry is equally as strained as during the gas crisis of the seventies and early eighties, if not worse, and it’s problematically layered with a credit and economy crisis that seems to be doing it no favors either. Top that with what seems like an uphill battle that Detroit is not winning in terms of it’s reputation for producing quality, and being a car executive, it seems, isn’t exactly easy. It’s a tough business, no matter how many J.D. Power & Associates awards you may win. The modern car guy, these days, is required to be that much more media savvy than perhaps Iacocca had to be. There’s more to know and consider. They’ve got to worry about public perception of their problems and their products on so many different kinds of fronts than perhaps the car guys of the past. Media has transformed. CEO’s, even with a CMO or a CCO, are forced to acknowledge the presence of blogs and social media as a direct way for customers to comment on company visions, their products…and to the black cloud above many of their heads sometimes…their earnings. Opinions fly, and it’s more difficult to simply focus on hitting output quota for the quarter or keeping shareholders happy. These days you can expect professional industry bloggers to be stepping up to the mic during press conferences, and they hold a lot of weight. I like Allan Mullaly, the former Boeing executive, who sits in the top dog chair at Ford now. He’s been a voice that’s been preaching more change than Obama in the industry field, and seems to get the whole concept of reconnection with customers, the establishment of a much needed listening culture at Ford, and brand equity in the names of their cars, like the Taurus and Fiesta. I like his philosophy. Listen to the consumer. Being aware of the impact of social media is a key component of that philosophy, because the fact is, with something as front and center as a car purchase, people will talk, and they have quite the voice to do it now.

Bob Nardelli, pictured in this post, is another interesting example of a modern day car CEO. Currently head honcho at Chrysler, he was one of Jack Welch’s proteges, and had a rocky tenure at The Home Depot, which ended  with a golden handshake in many shareholder’s minds when he left. Not being a car guy, he came into the role after Cerebrus Capital Management, a private equity firm, came in and bought Daimler’s stake in America’s third largest car company. Keep in mind, out of all of three of Detroit’s major players, Chrysler has been at the forefront in terms of innovation and design for a long time. They invented the mini van, not to mention the Kcar, and have developed revolutionary engine and chasis designs over the years. Nardelli has a reputation, apparently, as a tough-as-nails boss, which is a good thing for a company focused on turning around. He seems to have the right idea, and is a Six Sigma master. You don’t get more driven than someone like Nardelli, however, I’m curious as to how he will naviagte the need to look at things like blogs, and not just reviews, about Chrysler’s products. The modern day CEO needs to know this headspace well. Really well, and they can’t just rely on their communications executives or vice presidents to keep what some auto executives still consider to be the dissidents, appeased. These aren’t dissidents. They’re happy or unhappy customers with major networking media ammo, and they can directly affect people’s buying patterns and habits. They can be leveraged for positive things, and they can also bring down your business. Every industry is affected by this, but the automobile industry is something that is particularly sensitive because of the cultural impact of the modern vehicle. Car blogs are high in count and are read heavily. I’m rooting for Nardelli, because even though I’ve never owned a Chrysler, they’ve got a great history. All of the domestic brands do. Chrysler just got divorced from a major auto group in Daimler, so I’m particularly interested to see what Nardelli does now that it’s private. It’s about so much more than marketing or getting a good ad firm as an agency of record… but at the same time it’s not only about creating a Facebook group, a blog, or a “street team”. It’s about changing company cultures, expectations, and attitudes from management to the assembly line, and coupling that with a pride in workmanship and reputation, finished with a true and genuine desire to create satisfaction and maintain a buyer’s faith…from the young first time teenage buyer considering a Civic or subcompact to the retired lifelong Cadillac owner. The question is, how can that old style excitement about car culture happen? I have a theory that some of you may find obvious…

Effective Current Communication and Marketing + Excellent Product + Focus on Customer Retention + Appreciation of Cultural Significance of the Automobile = Domestic Car Companies levelling the playing field.

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