Crazy About A Mercury

Riding around town on a bicycle, running errands the other day, and I came across an old, neglected car. Looked like a Mercury Montclair from 1964 — one of the cooler cars from my past (I think one of my uncles had a white one; probably Marian). One of the more distinctive roof lines, for sure. The “Mercury” song came to mind.

Do we still have musicians recording songs about cars? Alan Jackson had a hit with “Mercury Blues” in 1992 (originally written and recorded by KC Douglas in 1956 as “Mercury Boogie”). Ford Motor Co. bought the rights to the song, using it to sell Ford trucks afterward. I’ve always liked that song. Good for selling cars, too.

Proprietary songs/music/jingles are a fading art. Can you still sing the Schaefer Beer jingle? I can. Older folks, do you remember “see the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet?” By the way,  the Schaefer ads were :60 spots:

Other “car songs” inevitably come to mind, some more marketable than others. “Little G.T.O.” by Ronny and The Daytonas was translated into German and used by VW for their GTI (“Kleiner GTI”), which I thought was brilliant. The lyrics via Hemmings Auto Blogs (with translation):

Kleiner GTI / Little GTI
Du siehst prima aus / well, you look so fine
Ich liebe, dich zu fahren / How I love to drive you
Hol’ die leistrung ‘raus / Let the performance shine
Hör nur, wie er sich anlasst / Listen when I start it
Steck’ den schlussel ‘rein / Stick the key in the ignition
Er ist bereit zum start / And it’s ready to go
Wie er braust / How it zips
Wie er saust, GTI. / How it zooms, GTI.
Werde bargeld, sparen / I’ll save up some money
Kauf’ den GTI / Buy a GTI
er fahrt mit mir lassig / ’cause it drives so easy
An den andren vorbei, / past the other cars
Uberholt benzinfresser / Passes all the gas-hogs
Macht mir spass dabei / Makes me smile a while
Und jedermann sagt sich dann bloss, / And everyone thinks to themselves
“Kleiner wagen-du bist gross” / “Little car – you’re grand”
Er ist bereit zum start / It’s always ready to go
Wie er braust / How it zips
Wie er saust, GTI. / How it zooms, GTI.
Wah wah… wah wah wah wah wah….

The Dead Milkmen’s “Bitchin Camaro” was not used by Chevrolet in their marketing, for obvious reasons. Will they under Bob Lutz? You never know. He’s only 77, and he’s got an old Czech-built fighter jet he flies himself (or at he used to). He’s in charge of marketing at GM now and I think he’ll do a good job. I was reminded by an interview published in Business Week that he was running BMW marketing in Munich when they came up with “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” Not too shabby.

Here’s what he had to say about how marketing dollars were spent:

To spend $200 million on manufacturing, we have to get board approval, with top management involved from an early stage. Yet we spend billions on marketing and delegate that to too many people at the lowest levels. It’s insanity. Now, ideas on how to tell our story will be reviewed by me and often by Fritz [CEO Henderson]. We remade the global design process by going with our instincts, not consumer testing. This process will be analogous to that.

And I bet they had metrics, and lots of them. Focus on differentiating your brand, and the rest will fall into place. Use your experience. Jack Trout (who also picked up on the Lutz quote) wrote about it in Ad Age today:

Chief marketing officers have shorter tenures than NFL coaches. They rarely last two years before they are gone.

As BusinessWeek commented in an article on the subject, “the job is radioactive.” The article cited a well-known search company as stating that 70% of the companies don’t know what they’re looking for when they recruit a CMO.

In my estimation, Advertising Age had the answer to the short CMO tenure in an interesting piece of research on senior marketers. It was done by Anderson Analytics, which surveyed a group of 1,657 senior marketing executives (600 replied).

Anderson asked respondents to rank the marketing concepts they pay most attention to in their jobs. They spend the most time on customer satisfaction (88%), customer retention (86%), segmentation (83%), competitive intelligence (82%), brand loyalty (82%), search-engine optimization (81%), marketing ROI (80%), quality (79%), data mining (78%) and personalization (79%).

This is why CMOs are being fired left and right. On the list of things on which they are working, differentiation doesn’t even make the top 10. While they are worrying about customers or segmentation or ROI or search-engine optimization, their brands are sinking into a sea of commoditization.

If you think I’m overstating the problem of commoditization, let me give you some numbers. A research organization called Brand Keys has been tracking this problem via an analysis of 1,847 products and services in 75 categories. The results are frightening. On average, the study found that only 21% of all products and services examined had any points of differentiation that were meaningful to consumers. That’s nearly 10% less than in a benchmark study that was conducted in 2003.

To better understand this, take the automotive category. It has a reasonable percentage of differentiation, at 38%. That means you have a fair number of differentiated brands such as Toyota (reliability) or BMW (driving) or Volvo (safety) or Mercedes (prestige). It also means you have a large number of placeholders such as GM and Ford. The marketers at these companies are certainly not earning any respect.

Figuring out the right differentiating strategy is only the beginning. Marketing then has to convince the CEO and CFO that building or even maintaining a brand is a long-term process that requires patience and incremental change. You’ll have to avoid line extensions that undermine what the brand stands for in the mind. And Wall Street will be a problem you will have to get around, with its focus on quarterly and monthly results. With Mr. Lutz in charge, he is in a perfect position to do the convincing.

Bob Lutz is on the stick — with “a heightened state of awareness of the angle of attack at all times.”

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