Thursday, September 07, 2006

Quality Advertising is Job One

One of the great things about Slate is its fierce dedication to witty titles and captions. Today they gave us this charmer: "Have you driven out a Ford lately?"

It was terribly embarassing and an ill omen to hear Alan Mullaly, in his introduction as the new honcho, respond to the inevitable question of what he drives right now: "A Lexus... but I can't wait to drive a Ford." He could not quite come anywhere near pulling off an impression of sincerety in that patently ridiculous assertion. And knowing the inevitable need for him to trade down, and with them having had a few months to prepare for this, could he not have picked up a Ford ahead of time? Taken an early lifestyle hit for the sake of his new corporate charge?

Although the greedy UAW deserves some blame too for overreaching, I remain convinced the old Big Three American automakers were maimed into permanent decline by decades of poisonous American management culture - one that regarded technological products as static commodities, scoffed at R&D, and put all effort and emphasis into salesmanship - the attitude of the new executive who takes over a company and says, "I have no idea what a [widget X] is, but we're going to sell more of them!" (This is a straight paraphrase from an incoming manager at one of America's largest corporations about 25 years ago.)

Meanwhile, Toyota and Honda had the radical ideas that cars are technological works in progress, that you can sell more in the long run if you do the R&D to make them better - and while your focus is on engineering instead of vacuous, no-value-added, quarterly-earning-obsessed sales gods, it makes sense to have engineers promoted from within also running the company.

And who knew, but pouring your effort into constant betterment through engineering also happens to make for a more efficient economy.

Besides other recent failures - thinking genetic dynasty was somehow a qualification to run one of the world's largest companies, thinking the SUV craze was going to fly indefinitely in the face of long-term trends in oil prices and public attitudes toward the environment - the question is, when, if ever, will Ford and GM complete the cultural shift to the Honda mindset that they need to survive? Probable answer: when Kerkorian succeeds at clearing out the top spot at GM to make room for superhuman auto executive Carlos Ghosn - who happens to have risen up through the ranks of engineering R&D.

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