One of the things that’s often said by observers of the auto industry is that there is an insufficient number of “car guys” running the organizations. Instead, the people in charge are business men and women. Sure, there are the ex-ceptions, the Bob Lutz here or the Wolfgang Bernhard there, but fundamentally, most people at the top have their eye on the bottom line more than on most anything else. Which, presumably, is correct because the auto industry is about commerce, first and foremost. That said, however, I wonder whether a car guy at the top could really have what it takes to make a significant difference because the culture of this industry is one that is highly resistant to change. Let’s face it: all of those “Sez who?” stickers that Lutz applied to stupid proce-dures and policies notwithstanding, even he has undoubtedly run up against some of the organizational realities that have been long-cemented into place at the automaker, where doing what was good enough was apparently perceived as going too far.
I started thinking about this while reading a collection of observations on business and innovation by leaders of companies ranging from Herman Miller to Nike. The book is called Spark: Be More Innovative Through Co-Creation by John Winsor (Dearborn Trade Publishing; $19.95). Comments by Scott Bowers, vp of world-wide marketing for Oakley (www.oakley.com), really struck a nerve. Oakley produces eyewear and accessories. Here’s how the company describes itself to investors on its website: “With a corporate culture dedicated to purpose beyond reason, Oakley blends science and art to redefine product categories by rejecting the constraints of conventional ideas.” Think about that language: Purpose beyond reason. Redefine product categories. Rejecting the constraints of conventional ideas. Or how about this line: “Oakley is a technology company with a heritage of innovation, dedication to purpose, and authenticity”? Given that it is an outfit with FY 2004 sales of $621.7 million, this is not something that can be dismissed as being not germane to the auto industry. That’s real money, and during FY ’04, 33.2% of the sales were accounted for by what the company describes as “newer categories”—Oakley people recognize change is essential for profitable survival.
Listen to Bowers, and hang on to your seat: “We are. . . skeptical of what consumers—typical consumers—want. Not to sound brandcentric, but each time we’ve given the market what it wants, we end up just following what everybody else is doing. Instead, we strive to be brave and design or develop products that really build on what already exists and just make it better. We let the design and the technology drive our brand, instead of trying to follow what the trends might be or what research might tell us.” Doing what everyone else does doesn’t lead to success. Again: “You can’t be different just to be different, you have to have purpose and substance.” You must understand what your company is about and what your customers are about. How many people in the auto industry have a hard-core focus on their actual customers—people to whom products can be profitably sold—as compared with those who manage to define their customers as anyone with a pulse and a license? Finally: “Our founder’s mantra is to ‘solve problems with invention and wrap those inventions in art.’ To me this statement breaks us away from those brands that merely follow trends, slap a logo on their product, and throw out a fancy and overpaid marketing campaign. Consumers ultimately gravitate to products that are unique and meaningful.” And I’d argue that this is true for cars and trucks, as well.