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A New Vision for General Motors

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Topics:  General Motors, Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, Cadillac
Opinions expressed by Bill Crittenden are not official policies or positions of The Crittenden Automotive Library. You can read more about the Library's goals, mission, policies, and operations on the About Us page.

A New Vision for General Motors

Bill Crittenden
October 18, 2012

The way vehicles are manufactured and the way people buy them has changed a great deal since the early days of the automobile.  In some ways the automotive retail industry has kept up, in other ways it has not.

In one of the great eras of automobiling, the 1950's, all the divisions of General Motors had their own price brackets, but they competed with each other a little bit in the overlap, and they built distinctly different cars with distinctly different parts.  In this era, there was enough room for Chevrolet, Pontiac, Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile, GMC, as well as their main competitors Chrysler, Imperial, Plymouth, Dodge, and DeSoto, Ford, Lincoln, Mercury and Edsel, as well as the "independent" companies of Nash/Rambler, Studebaker, Willys, Jeep, and Hudson.

Another aspect of the old markets was the lack of variety.  There were hardly any SUVs, no minivans, no "crossovers," and a handful of pickup trucks.  Selling mostly large cars with few technical components and even fewer government regulations, by today's standards, the research and development costs were minimal and the divisions could each afford to make unique products.  Competition against each other proved beneficial, pushing each to build better products than their counterparts at GM.

On the retail end, dealerships were mostly small mom-and-pop operations, focusing on one brand.  While dealerships were often next door or across the street from each other, modern "auto mall" with all the brands under one ownership had not come along yet.

This became a problem as General Motors adapted to changes in the industry by standardizing a lot of their design and manufacturing processes.  Shared platforms, corporate engines, and "parts bin" components all culminated in "brand engineering," the process of designing one car and making it three more through bodywork and marketing.

Along with this, the mid-1980's brought another forced another change in the brands.  Independent Buick, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile dealerships were being left behind as more families switched to minivans and SUVs, and demanded something to be able to sell to the customers they were losing.  Badge engineering stepped in, and soon the dealers were satisfied...but the customers were confused.

This was nowhere worse than at GM's "Excitement" brand, Pontiac.  Pontiac dealers had the minivans their buyers were looking for, but the marketing had to figure out a way to fit the Trans Sport into the sporty car marketing.  The Trans Sport was replaced by the even more unfortunately named Montana, an evocative name to appeal to the active outdoors person, but it stuck out like a sore thumb alongside the racing-themed Grand Am, Grand Prix, and Bonneville.  Then the Aztek came along, and unfortunate styling and poor sales aside, was a great vehicle for the weekend camper but a terrible fit in the brand next to the Solstice and GTO.  Weakened by years of going in two different directions, the brand was selected to be discontinued when the U.S. government stepped into the economic crisis of the late 2000's.

Saturn, formed later in the game, was a car company ahead of its time.  Recycleable components, plastic panels, and fuel efficiency all made in an environmentally-friendly factory where Saturn owners would get together every year and revel in their Earth-friendly lifestyle.  This was over a decade before the Prius came along.  Once the accountants got through with the company, everything special and unique about Saturn had been squeezed out of it, reducing the product to Chevrolets with extra chrome, and it also died in the economic crisis of a few years ago.

Along with the death of Saturn and Pontiac, the Solstice/Sky platform also disappeared.  A popular little car, it just didn't fit in with the Buick lineup, it definitely wasn't GMC material, and Chevrolet was already overcrowded.  It just slipped through the cracks and disappeared.

As General Motors was eliminating dealerships and two brands, the economic crisis also forced Chrysler to revise its strategy, consolidating multiple Chrysler-brand dealerships in a single market into combined Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep dealerships.  Plymouth was phased out, but Ram was spun off as a separate marque in its own right.  It didn't matter that Dodge didn't technically have a pickup truck and Ram never sold a car...you couldn't get a Ram dealership without Dodges and you couldn't find a Dodge dealership without Ram Trucks.  The two brands could each take marketing in their own different directions, selling their products to their own separate buyers, and nobody at the dealership level could ever complain that they were losing sales because they didn't have one type of vehicle another dealership under the same manufacturer down the road had.

It's a hard process to undertake, as there were thousands of people who lost their jobs, many loyal long-time dealers who lost their franchises, and lawsuits that made it all very expensive to accomplish.  In the end, it seems to have been worth it for them.  The same process could be even more beneficial to a company like General Motors.

Imagine a large Chevrolet dealership taking on the rest of the GM family of brands, and the other dealerships in town closing up shop.  Yes, in the end, redundant workers will be without jobs, but the efficiencies gained will benefit those who remain by reducing overlapping marketing, brand identity, and product confusion.  Each brand could exist for its own specific market, and would not require a "full line" to even exist.  As with Dodge and Ram, if there were consolidated General Motors dealerships selling all the mainstream brands together (perhaps Cadillac could be an exception), a brand could exist on just one vehicle.  Pontiac would not have needed the Aztek and the Montana to survive, or even the Sunfire or G3.  They could exist solely on Firebirds, Trans Ams, Solstices, and G8s.  Want an SUV? Buy a Chevrolet.  The Pontiac dealers wouldn't complain, because a Pontiac dealership wouldn't exist independently outside of a General Motors dealership, and Chevrolets would always be close at hand for the same salesmen to sell.

A "marque" would be a brand, not a company or an organization or a network of dealerships.  Think of a department store.  The retailer doesn't have to make sure each brand has all the products a customer could want, it just has to make sure it has all the products a customer could want and then fills each need with the appropriate brand.  This eliminates each brand having to try and be all things to all people to keep each dealership competitive with the guys next door selling almost the same group of cars.

When making a car try to be all things to all people, the desire is to appeal to as broad a base as possible, and then there is a tendency to create products that nobody hates, but also that nobody loves.  Or, there is a "target demographic" that is targeted because of their age, income level, and cultural influence, but then all car companies are going after similar demographics and coming up with similar products.  If you take that away, and instead have one large dealership where all the brands work together to fill all the holes in the market and make sure there is a product that is exactly right for each customer group, you ensure that you appeal to the absolute broadest possible potential customer base while eliminating the competition among same-company dealerships in the same town that caused most of the cars to be near exact copies of each other.

No single vehicle would have to be a sales hit to keep a dealership going, so there would be less pressure to make all vehicles appeal to all people and more freedom, if not actual encouragement, to explore niche vehicles.  For example, the Aztek was never going to appeal to a wide variety of people, but to someone who takes the family camping on the weekends and doesn't need serious off-road capabilities to do it, it was perfect in a way that no other compromising mainstream market crossover can match.  And there is currently nothing on the market that is quite the same.

Buick would not have been so caught up on its average buyer age and been content to create vehicles that older buyers love knowing younger buyers will still be shopping at the same dealership.  Now that Buick has gone in the direction of European-style luxury vehicles with the new Regal, I would love to see a new General Motors bring back the Oldsmobile brand on a series of older-driver-friendly cars: styled in a classic, if not slightly retro, design, with bench seats, column shifters, and simple to operate radios.  My favorite part?  You can actually market them to older drivers.  Toyota does the opposite with Scion.  They tried marketing the Echo to young drivers, who they hoped to move up into Camrys and Lexuses later in life.  Instead, everybody's grandma bought one and it became an old person's car.  Scion was created not just to market to youth, but as I discovered from a Scion rep at the Chicago Auto Show, they're marketed in such a way as to hopefully scare away the old people that ruined their plans for the Echo.  Oldsmobile can be the opposite, marketed with spokespersons over 60, with ad slogans like "cars the way you remember them" and my personal favorite, "this IS your father's Oldsmobile."  Maybe it'll work, maybe the classic style will appeal to a bigger customer base than expected, and maybe they'll fall flat on their face.  The point is, with nobody's dealership investment eggs all in one brand's basket, people would be more willing to try different things.

Saturn and Pontiac could come back, as well.  Saturn won't need minivans and Pontiac wouldn't need an SUV, they can remain more pure to their original intentions and that makes marketing brand identity more powerful and effective.

Cadillac could be left out of this, as they aim upmarket to regain their status as "Standard of the World" their dealerships could stand apart from the mainstream General Motors dealerships in location.  General Motors dealerships could operate Cadillac dealerships under the same type of organization, just in separate buildings, to offer the premium experience without the issues of an independent dealership.  At least, they could be the anchor of a separate, premium group of brands that are sold in a similar fashion as the mainstream group but in upscale dealerships.  That could allow General Motors to acquire or start a premium sports car brand to compete on the level of Jaguar or Aston Martin without having to turn Cadillacs into sports cars.  Another idea I have for the premium group is bringing back LaSalle...

Remember the companion marques?  General Motors created them to fill price point holes between the brands in the 1920's.  The original brands, in progression from least to most expensive, were Chevrolet, Oakland, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac.  All the brands except Chevrolet got a companion marque, perhaps GM's first example of real badge engineering, to fill a hole either above or below the brand.  The progression, during the program, was Chevrolet, Pontiac & Oakland, Oldsmobile & Viking, Marquette & Buick, LaSalle & Cadillac.  Of course, they all failed except for Pontiac, which superseded its original brand (Oakland).  However, with the ability to create a marque based on as few as one or two cars, General Motors could create retro cars in the past styles of, say, Cadillac, and brand them LaSalle so that they don't interfere with the brand image of the rest of the current Cadillacs.  The same goes for the rest of the companion marques.  Okay, it finally might be too much to try and keep twelve brands going at the same time, but that's another nice thing about this system: they could come up with a special limited edition LaSalle, just one car, and discontinue the whole brand 3 years later when the allotment runs out, without anyone losing their jobs or dealerships closing, and the brand can be picked back up at a later date just as easily.  GM already has a history of doing short-run retro cars with the SSR and HHR, and they've had some success with it.

One last thing, for company unity and identity I would reinstitute the placing of GM badges on the vehicles in addition to the brand badges.  They did that, in the form of little silver squares behind the front wheel for about 4 years in the late 2000's.  I would personally like to see an enamel blue GM logo next to the words "General Motors," softly backlit at night on higher-end models, on the doorsill of every General Motors model sold, like the Body by Fisher labels of yesteryear.  So that from the outside and the inside it is styled completely in the "personality" that the owner wants, but still carries a reminder every time they get in the car, or more importantly show off the car to a friend, who it is that actually manufactured the vehicle.  The same could go for the engine, since the institution of the "corporate" engine where drivetrains are shared by all brands, they could also use the GM branding on the engine cover.

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