Brands & People

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Chrysler announced last week that it would let go at least one out of every four white-collar employees.

This comes after thousands more were dismissed prior to its acquisition by leveraged-buyout firm Cerberus little more than a year ago. Back then, Daimler-Benz took a giant hit on the deal, and the new owners recruited a management team to rip through every budget and find more efficiences. I think it subsequently asked every union worker in Michigan to retire.

These actions were called "…a focus with greater intensity on the day-to-day business of producing better cars." A new day at Chrysler was quickly declared via an expensive, sunny branding campaign that ran on the Super Bowl within months of the acquisition.

Only how can there be a Chrysler brand without anybody there to deliver it?

Truly, the most important brand communications about the company have come from finance, not marketing; no creative or new media shenanigans could obfuscate the fact that non-car investment types bought a car company because they thought they knew how to run a company better, not necessarily make better cars.

It’s hard to believe that even a year ago we used to think that financiers and the otherwise uber-successful were supermen who could run any business, but the financial media gave them a pass. So, as the price of gas shot up and new car sales went down along with the rest of the economy, who better to manage the transition and survival of the Chrysler brand?

Only what is the brand without people?

I don’t think you can separate what a company says about its brand from what it does, and it’s people who do the doing. 

Experts can talk about brand promises, attributes, associations, or transcental one-eyed-ness, but it all disappears in a poof of expensive smoke when behaviors don’t add up. I think those actions come first, and prompt the brand communications, and not as a follow-up to absolute declarations.

So it doesn’t matter if you try to label your slash-and-burn behaviors organizational announcements, restructurings, or blame your circumstances on every externality including the orbit of the planets; it’s impossible to re-brand the reality of the any business. There was never really a new day at Chrysler, and all the money the experts spent on trying to declare otherwise (or simply obfuscate the truth) was ultimately doomed. 

Because here’s the countervailing, ugly narrative the firm’s actions suggest, and which easily supersedes the branding it tried to buy: 

  • Smart financial-types buy troubled company with no intention of making cars, but rather slashing the structure of the business so they can get it into some semblance of shape to be sold again
  • These guys are big picture geniuses, and they see the likely contraction in the auto business. Their goal is to swap a slimmed-down Chrysler for some other asset that they are more comfortable managing (and which will make them ever-more money)
  • It isnt like they know how to sell cars any better than the folks they replaced, so a surprise crash in the marketplace forces their hand at a bit
  • A possible deal is pursued with GM that would saddle it with the surviving hard assets of Chrysler’s manufacturing base, along with the trailing expense of healthcare for all those workers it worked through over the years
  • Cerberus would get GM’s finance arm in the trade.

Then everyone is happy with the brand…except anyone who worked at or with Chrysler. Or anyone who owns one of its vehicles.

Imagine going to work today at HQ in Detroit, at a factory, a supplier firm, or a Chrysler dealership? How about every owner who puts a key into the ignition of one of its vehicles? What do they know when they look around? What do they fear is true, based on what they’ve seen? 

What’s the value of the Chrysler brand apart from what people do with or for it?

Whether due to ineptitude or conscious deceit, its brand communications have been a lie. There was never a new day there. 

Or maybe the new day is just about to end?

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