No. 1009
August 14, 2019

About The UjianNasional

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  ). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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By Peter M. DeLorenzo

Detroit. I’ve often wondered over the years about automotive marketers: how they got there, where their sensibilities about the world originated and how their various educational experiences played a role in their thinking. There are countless dimensions to their stories, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about this since I first got involved in automotive advertising and marketing on the agency side way back when.

I have encountered a kaleidoscope of marketing types over the years. There are the ill-equipped and the overmatched who are thrust into crucial marketing roles due to an arcane philosophy of executive “rounding,” something that has plagued the automotive marketing pursuit with a particularly virulent strain of mediocrity. I distinctly remember a Dodge client (who shall remain nameless because his incompetence was only surpassed by his malicious stupidity) who announced in his first meeting with our agency (BBDO), “I know what good advertising is; I watch a lot of TV.”

This man had just been handed the keys to the multi-million-dollar Dodge advertising budget for car, truck and dealer advertising for no rational reason whatsoever other than his bosses had decided that it was time to give him a go at it. I knew at that very moment that this was going to be an “up at dawn, pride swallowing siege” as Cameron Crowe so eloquently put it in “Jerry Maguire.” It proved to be even worse than that.

There were others in a rogue’s gallery of serial marketing incompetence over the years as I traversed the advertising landscape. GM was notoriously bad, with clients on Pontiac (in the early 80s) and Chevrolet (in the 90s) that boasted a relentlessly ugly combination of incompetence and arrogance, which was unfathomable given those divisions’ excruciating pirouette into the Abyss. Yes, we were able to deliver some good work in spite of it all, but nevertheless, clients were too often obstacles to creativity than anything else. I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise after all, especially when the executives in question started out their days with the mantra: “What do I have to do to cover my ass today?”

Nissan was its own weirdness altogether. I joined their agency (William Esty in New York, with a satellite office in L.A.) just after the brainiacs at Nissan headquarters in Japan decided to shift the name “Datsun” to Nissan, one of the dumbest moves in the history of automotive marketing. Datsun went from “We Are Driven” – one of the most memorable automotive ad themes of all time – to… nothing even remotely memorable for Nissan overnight. This was all compounded by the fact that the Americans in marketing based at headquarters in Carson, California, were saddled with two anvils hanging off of their necks. The first was the same CYA mentality that ran rampant through the business (after all, most of them were ex-Detroiters), and the fact that there was a “shadow” group of Japanese executives who undermined their every move. It was a dead-air circus with no redeeming value whatsoever, but I will admit that the people I worked with were some of the best and we had so much fun it almost made it worthwhile. Almost.

Over the years, I also encountered marketers on my accounts who were smart, on point and dedicated to advancing their brands in the most creative ways possible. These people were fun to work with because none of the usual bullshit got in the way. They were receptive to ideas and were willing to fight their bosses for what they believed in. And great work was the result, even if it was often fleeting in the “what have you done for me lately?” world of automotive marketing.

And, remarkably enough, after years on the agency side and years trying to help clients do better and get better at marketing while writing for this publication, it’s depressing to report that not a damn thing has fundamentally changed. Oh, sure, there are new digital “tools” to exploit, but make no mistake – the kaleidoscope of clients involved in marketing runs the gamut from flat-out incompetence to occasional flashes of brilliance. In other words, same as it ever was.

The latest example of this is the “discovery” by American automakers – particularly GM and Ford – that retaining and nurturing the customers they have has become a very big deal, according to Automotive News. The realization that it is far cheaper to retain existing customers than it is going after new ones is becoming the revelation of the business, at least for this month, so both Ford and GM are cranking up new owner retention programs.

That this is some sort of revelation for these two domestic automakers – and their dealers – is particularly worrisome, as in, where the hell have they been? Have they been living under a rock for the last several decades, or what? 

What am I thinking? When it comes to marketing as practiced by GM and Ford that question answers itself. In fact, they have been living under a rock not to have seen how car companies like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and VW have aggressively nurtured their buyers with early turn-in lease incentives, and buyer loyalty programs and such. These car companies have been out front of this for years and it has paid off handsomely for them.

So now Detroit is just realizing this? It says all you need to know as to why Ford and GM have perpetual marketing problems. They’re late to the party, late to the realization, late to just about everything.

Here’s what Jim “I’m a genius, just ask me” Farley, Ford’s self-appointed all-knowing – and all-tedious –marketing guru told Automotive News: "When we did all the data analytics, it became really clear: A loyal owner is so much easier for us to do business with than trying to get a customer from someone else. It was a big 'aha' moment for us."

Really? A big “aha” moment? How about an a-ha-ha moment if you’re one of the import marketers reading about this? As in, WTF? have you guys been doing since oh, the 1980s? I would say Farley qualifies as the new Master of the Obvious, but that would actually mean that he is “master” of something, which, when he’s Ford’s reigning King of Nothing, really doesn’t fly. (The drums of negativity from inside the halls in Dearborn are beating loudly about Ford’s marketing guru, and I’m just wondering how much longer he is going to be allowed to run amuck and unimpeded before someone with clout suggests that he is not in any way, shape or form, The Answer. Farley’s charm offensive isn’t really working internally, and no one is really buying it. But Ford is s-l-o-w to act about everything, so I am dismayed but not surprised that he continues to run wild, accountable to exactly no one.)

Am I shocked by all of this? Not at all. Automotive marketing as practiced around here rarely leads. It is a reactive, hackneyed, mishmash of recycled ideas marked by obvious and predictably mundane choices. Yes, there are flashes of creativity and even moments of fleeting brilliance, but it is never sustained, and it never becomes standard operating procedure. Why? The “system” just won’t allow it because these companies are only capable of understanding the power of excellent marketing after the fact, or when someone else does it first, which is the quintessential bowl of Not Good. 

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.