Betting on the Future

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

A photo of Chevy’s VOLT electric car appeared in USAToday yesterday even though it’s two+ years away from the market, and GM is promoting new hybrid vehicles in three. It’s a safe bet to expect that the car business will be fundamentally different in a few years.

So what should Detroit’s marketers do about selling vehicles right now?

I can comfortably predict what they’ll do:

  • Try to sell stock already in the pipeline. There are an effectively endless number of vehicles rolling off of production lines, while finished units are gathering dust at dealerships. Even though consumers have already passed judgment on their interest, evidencing their lack thereof, the marketing departments will redouble their efforts to hawk them. It’s a common problem in retailing (selling old stuff even though there’s new, better stuff on the way)
  • They’ll do it in standard ways. New media is really a cost-cutter strategy for the Big Three, not necessarily a new medium, per se. Most of what you read about their strategies involves shifting marketing online from network TV and print magazines. Little is said about what or how the content might change, other than deferential mentions of conversation and other social media catchwords. Stay tuned for lots of distracting, irrelevant, but still quite costly marketing that will do little to help achieve the point prior to this one
  • So price will remain the prime selling tool. After all the cool imagery, brilliant branding, virtual whatevers and social media blather, about the only thing that will move Detroit’s vehicles will be price. Lower ones.

So I have a radical proposition that won’t work for all three companies, and might not even work for one of them. It would be a gamble – a big, survival-of-the-company-threatening gamble — but aren’t these companies already facing the real possibility of extinction? Tough times require bold moves and daring choices, and continuing business as usual makes it very possible that one or more of the Big Three might not be around (at least not in a presently-recognizable form) when the alt-fuel vehicles are ready to get sold.

So I have a win or lose proposition. For the sake of chuckles, let’s say that Chrysler could:

  • Announce a "Manhattan Project" for the entire company: Chrysler is going to convert its entire fleet to energy-responsible vehicles by 2015. That means manufacturing no vehicles that rely on fossil fuels for primary engine drives. Let everyone know, inside and outside the company, that Chrysler will lead the engineering revolution to green technology, just like it housed the cutting-edge engineers who built the company in the first place. So it’s a back to the roots program, not something invented or incomplete
  • Invite consumers, employees & vendors to join the program: Use this corporate goal as the rationale for every manner of social media, community activism, technical development, contests, etc. Find ways to enable people to invest now — whether with dollars or their time/intelligence — to help build a future together
  • Clean out old inventory: The fleet is pretty much on fire sale already, so why not make it official? Perhaps link vehicle sales to future sales (like "buy car X now and get a higher place in line for enviro car Y in Z years"). The key here would be to stop making the old stuff, so the company could literally reduce its inventory of old vehicles to zero. Make a clean break with the past 
  • Organize the company on meeting the ambitious goal: use the target of 100%-green as the organizing principle for processes, manufacturing tools, sourcing, etc. Imagine if Chrysler stopped making cars (that nobody wanted to buy anyway) for, say, a year or so, and dedicated itself to being reborn in the new guise of energy efficiency and responsibility? 
  • Base subsequent branding on this reality: Effecting such a game-changer strategy would be a resource for endless marketing communications tactics, but they’d all originate from — and refer back to — the substantive, real, meaningful strategy the company had initiated. The brand could be something people not only consumed, but truly shared if not co-owned.

Let’s face it: there’s little difference between GM, Ford, and Chrysler, other than which logo appears on the rebate check, and what week finds one set of customers more disgruntled or disappointed than another. The standard business and marketing playbook, no matter how creatively or enthusiastically delivered — will not change these facts.

I’m a dim bulb, but it might be a bright idea for a company to make a bet on the future, instead of daring customers to do it.

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