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Jeffrey Feldman Headshot

Is American Car Patriotism Dead?

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When I was growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, my family only bought American cars.  We were not particularly patriotic.  We never had a flag pole in our yard.  But we only had American cars in our garage.   I wonder, as GM executives arrive again on Capitol Hill, how many families are left who still adhere to American car patriotism? Not many, I suspect.  And this leads me to a strong, if not sobering prescription for GM.

To succeed again, GM must do more than build good cars. GM must find a path from 'buy American' to 'buy green' and then it must become that path.  It must not only find a way to market itself as a premier car company for transportation invested in environmental stewardship, but also create the means for millions of Americans to identify anew with their products as the country embraces a more sustainable economic and cultural story.

GM of all companies has probably benefited the most from this kind of automotive nationalism.  At one point, the main focus of their TV marketing was swapping the word 'Mom' for 'Chevrolet' in the jingle, "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and...Chevrolet." 

Personally, I think American car patriotism is not such a bad idea, but I can see why fewer and fewer people go in for it these days.  Try asking any potential car buyer under 40, for example, if they would buy an American car.   Irrespective of their political persuasion, that under-40 potential buyer is likely to offer up something about going green--the environment and trust. Deep down they may have memories of buying American cars when they were kids, but times have changed.  Buying American is what our parents did.  Buying green is what we do now.  Or is it?

What if, for example, President Obama were to use the bully pulpit to rekindle American car patriotism?  "American car companies are building the cars that Americans need," he could say at his next press event. "So if you need a car, buy one from GM, Ford or Chrysler."  Even if Obama did say that, though, I doubt the resulting media stir would translate into car sales.

The problem is the new frame that defines our thinking on car sales.  The big story on buying cars has shifted in the past few years from 'buy American' to 'buy green,' but GM has not shifted with it. Ford is already well under way towards refocusing their brand and they are not taking bailout funds at this point.  Plus, Ford has a prominent executive who bears the company name and is genuinely a leader of new green thinking. But GM? Not so much.

Take a look at GM's website and you see a company that talks big change, but is oddly out of sync with the new vernacular.  GM speaks a different language than a country of consumers seeing the world anew threw green tinted glasses.   GM may throw around hopes of  new fuel cells and adding a few more miles per gallon to current models, but they also talk about the enduring need for trucks.  They sound like a company weighed down by nostalgia far more than they are buoyed by innovation.   And this says nothing about the quality and value of the cars they produce, which is higher than at any other time in the company's history.   

GM is suffering from a brand-identity problem, and a severe one at that.  When I close my eyes and think of the most "un-green" large-scale manufacturing company in America, for example, GM is right up there in my list of three or four.  Is that fair?  Probably not.   God knows I would still give my left kidney for a 1978 Corvette.  Still, the fact remains that when most people today think of GM, they do not think of sustainability. 

While GM is busy trying to convince the country through PR that it is poised to become a major player in the new era of sustainability, more and more Americans look at GM as the company that symbolizes the old era of gas guzzlers and SUVs.  

All this means that the path to survival for GM--not to mention prosperity--is more than a matter of finding a way to put high-capacity batteries into production vehicles in the next 2 years.  Given enough cash, they could probably do that.  For GM to thrive again, the company must drop its past reliance on American car patriotism and embrace the new 'green' ethic that is pushing Americans to reinvent themselves.  

What might this look like if GM actually underwent such a radical transformation?

Imagine, for example, if tomorrow GM announced that it was changing the mission of its company to something like this:

Meet the world's transportation needs with the goal of protecting global water resources for future generations everywhere?

Now, if I were to sit down with a GM executives tomorrow, and advise them to change their mission statement to emphasize transportation and water stewardship (just one possibility of many) instead of just selling cars, they would tell me that I was being unrealistic and that I should find a way to 'balance' the economy with the need to protect the environment.   And that is what makes GM a company of the past--a company hiding from change behind a cloak of American car patriotism that is rapidly diminishing.

Ford has already made the shift from 'cars' to 'transportation' and from 'earnings' to 'stewardship' in their corporate vision. GM has not even begun. 

And yet, for a company of GM's size to benefit from the kind of economic investment and recovery the Obama administration has set in motion, it must do more than just take buckets of government money and apply it to the holes in its rickety financial roof.  GM must reinvent and revolutionize the very meaning of "GM" in the American mind.

To all those GM executives who would respond to this challenge by saying, "We have already done it!"  My answer is: Sorry, but...no you have not.  The truth is in the hearts and minds of the American consumer when it comes
to GM, not in the damage control of the GM PR machine.

I am optimistic, if not a bit nostalgic.  If GM would start tomorrow to build that path from 'buy American' to 'buy green'--the next 5 years could be the most exciting time the American consumer has ever known.  The innovations that could hit the market as a result of a completely reinvented GM would be virtually limitless. The Detroit Auto Show could become the biggest world stage for green technology ever known.  Michigan could become the center of a new green manufacturing movement.  The result would be a radical shift in how we experience and how we think about American cars and how we think about being American.

The choice is up to GM--the real choice.  I hope they make it.

Crossposted from Frameshop