Dudder: Skeptics Welcome

Columns From: 9/1/2008 Automotive Design & Production, , Contributing Editor

Just saying your vehicles have improved isn't enough. You have to prove it every day to a public unwilling to accept your claims.

Remember the "Pepsi Challenge"? It was a blind taste test started in 1975 that had people sample unmarked glasses of cola, and pick their preferred drink based solely on taste.

Remember the "Pepsi Challenge"? It was a blind taste test started in 1975 that had people sample unmarked glasses of cola, and pick their preferred drink based solely on taste. Critics claim Pepsi's sweeter taste and higher glutamate levels were perfect for a short-term sip test like this, and that longer term exposure-a glass instead of a sip-often tipped the balance back into Coca-Cola's flavor. However, it was a legitimate way in which to get people who otherwise would not consider their product to consider Pepsi. A similar blind "tasting" at a recent domestic OEM's launch event reminded me of Pepsi's marketing effort, and how it turned the tide of perception for many people and increased market share. By laying out competitor's seat, window switches, and multi-function steering wheels against their latest generation, this company performed its own version of the cola confrontation. And it was eye-opening. Both Honda and Toyota came up short against the domestic, a result that was quite unexpected.

Undoubtedly, there are myriad ways in which this game can be, and might have been, rigged, but those who took the time to investigate came away with a perception they hadn't expected. The assumed leaders were not, the assumed laggard was not, and more than one person looked perplexed by the results. After all, it is a commonly held belief that domestic products don't measure up to their foreign competition, and their image as downmarket has-beens is well deserved. The problem faced by the domestics, however, is a daunting one: How to change the perception of their companies and products after years of benign neglect and deserved vilification. Simply exhorting potential customers to "Drive One" is not enough to break down a barrier that has many layers of psycho-social baggage attached to it. One need look no farther than Michael Crichton's best selling thriller Airframe to see the depth of the animus that exists between journalism and business, and the pre-conceived notions that color what we see and hear on television and radio or read on the Internet. Nor is it helped by an industry that has spent years crying wolf or frittering away its leadership role or basking in reflected glory; an industry that still has thousands of sub-par past examples of its craft still on the road or coming off its assembly lines, and cannot let that reality slip its collective mind as it moves forward.

This is a battle that will be won a person at a time, and that must be fought on two fronts: 1) Product and 2) Image. By now it's a cliché that superior product is the one true answer to Detroit's dilemma, but that tells only part of the story. Image is as, if not more, important. No one will buy your superior vehicle if the image exuded by it, or played out through the media and social networks is one that does not agree with what a potential buyer sees (or imagines) in the mirror or the eyes of his peers each day.

However, too often the domestic automakers have relied on a halo vehicle or two to give their company, or a particular brand within it, a boost without tying its positives into a broader program that trickles down in a logical and precise fashion into more mainstream offerings. Similarly, offensives are launched to raise initial quality numbers and give a boost to sales, but the lessons learned aren't captured, codified, and cascaded throughout the organization so that each successive vehicle can be better still. Motorsport and other programs are launched to goose the reputation of a vehicle, brand or company compared to its peers, but no logical path is followed such that this information is understood, utilized, and promoted. And yet those companies that combine all of these items into a single plan often are those with a searing focus on who they are, what they stand for, and how they will approach whatever the market has to throw at them.

Any company wishing to follow this path will find the going tough, but the rewards real and sustainable. However, it will take more than a modified Pepsi Challenge to make people understand and accept that things have changed. For the companies willing to trod this trail, I suggest a tagline for the materials it produces that explain and show how things have changed: "Skeptics Welcome." If any two words describe the universe of customers both potential and real it faces, surely it is these.