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GM out to shock American consumer

October 15, 2009 http://detnews.com/article/20091015/OPINION03/910150348

GM out to shock American consumer

DANIEL HOWES

Detroit

Don’t forget your gap-gauges, folks. General Motors Co. wants you to fly-speck its metal at a dealership near you.

Check the panels on that new Chevrolet Equinox. Examine the millimeters-wide void between the hood and the front fenders on the 2010 Buick LaCrosse. Critique the interiors of the Cadillac SRX crossover or the CTS Wagon. Compare the fuel economy of ’em all (or almost all) to those from Japan’s Big Three.

In a bid for traction into its second life, GM is amping up its challenge to American car buyers (not to mention a skeptical news media and woefully misinformed politicians). Prevailing, even half the time, is the best (only?) chance the post-bankrupt GM has of returning to prosperity and respectability.

The automaker aims to "shock Americans into a new awareness about the competitiveness of GM products," Bob Lutz, the automaker’s chief marketing officer, said in brief remarks Wednesday at the RenCen. "We can’t do it the way we used to do it by gently showing our products. We’ve got to take it on boldly and head-on. We can stand the comparison with just about anybody."

If nothing else, give ’em points for moxie and a directionally correct embrace of reality. For if GM is to have a future — a legit, honest-to-God chance at paying back its loans, issuing shares to investors, even making a bona fide profit — it cannot prevaricate, cannot sandbag, cannot shrink from unsparing comparisons to the best from Toyota and Honda. Most of all, it cannot make excuses.

GM can’t blame American customers, who know what they can see for themselves. Can’t blame the union, whose cost structure has been equalized by Chapter 11. Can’t blame the debt load, now one of the lightest in the industry. Can’t blame the competition, beset with its own troubles. Can’t blame the news media, the politicians or regulators in Washington, no matter how arbitrary and anti-business their newest rules.

None of them design, build and market GM’s cars and trucks. And none of them are responsible for what’s sitting in GM showrooms around the country. GM is, and three months out of bankruptcy it clearly is moving to make its case, pugnaciously, to anyone who will listen. It’d better.

After years spent back on their figurative heels — and the past 12 months on their knees — GM’s message-makers in marketing, sales and communications are leaning forward again, theoretically together. Partly because their improving (and winnowed) product line means they can, and partly because bankruptcy helped remove many internal impediments (that would be pieces of bureaucracy and execs leaving or gone) to a less cautious, more realistic public posture.

Riskier? Yes, particularly when statements made today can bite hard six or 12 months later should circumstances change. Necessary? Absolutely, because yesterday’s legacy of middling products and lame marketing means GM’s story of today and tomorrow cannot tell itself. It needs lots of help.

You can see it in comparative ads aimed squarely at the perception that Japan’s automakers own the fuel economy story. You can see it in the aggressive warranties, the blogosphere smack-down of hyperventilated (or just plain wrong) news stories, the quiet confidence implied by the 60-day guarantees.

More than 150,000 vehicles have been sold since GM launched the 60-day program, but only "hundreds" opted for it. As of a few days ago, Lutz said, only one car had been returned — a Corvette with a manual transmission. The dealer swapped it for an automatic.

That’s probably not yet momentum, but it’s movement in the right direction.

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