Let’s start today’s sustainability lesson with a truism: Big global brands love sustainability. They love to talk about it, put it in their mission statements, make claims to living it. The reason why is in part because as a meme, it’s probably too successful. Sustainability’s been worn thin by overuse and mishandling. It could mean almost anything, and so you can slap it onto your business model without ever figuring out what you mean by it.
Here’s a case in point: General Motors. Now, GM loves sustainability so darn much, they not only issued their first post-bailout sustainability report last year, they built a whole website just for the report. It’s got all kinds of amazing tabs and subsections (everything from “The Future of Urban Mobility” featuring sci-fi pod cars to details of the “Chevy Carbon Reduction Initiative”).
Lest you find yourself lost in the interlocking wheels of GM’s Sustainability Report, I’ll draw your attention to the matched pair under the label “SELL.” The blue ring, representing GM’s business model, puts forward this goal: “Maximizing revenue with a focused brand strategy; delivering world-class vehicles to market.” Jump to the green sustainability ring, and you get this related goal: “Offering sustainable vehicle choices to consumers that meet their diverse needs.”
World-class sustainable vehicles of many makes and models, each with a focused brand to meet a specific consumer need – tidy, ain’t it?
So then. Let’s move on to an extraordinary piece of business reporting in The New York Times this week about GM’s ambitious new brand strategy. Under a classic counterintuitive teaser of a headline – “As Young Lose Interest in Cars, G.M. Turns to MTV for Help” – we learn that America’s youth are failing to drive as never before:
In 2008, 46.3 percent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had drivers’ licenses, compared with 64.4 percent in 1998, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and drivers ages 21 to 30 drove 12 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 1995.
There are any number of factors causing the drop in driving – everything from lingering student-loan debt and tighter finances generally to the increasing preference among young Americans for living in walkable urban neighborhoods. The New York Times helpfully notes a few more: “Today Facebook, Twitter and text messaging allow teenagers and 20-somethings to connect without wheels. High gas prices and environmental concerns don’t help matters.”
Let’s set aside the curious word choice there about concern for the health of the planet not helping. (Who should they be helping? Gas station owners?) Now, if GM actually understood how their business and sustainability rings interlock in the great infographic that is the modern marketplace, they might recognize that the price of operating a vehicle and the small but undeniable contribution it makes to climate change are not incidental but fundamental issues. Put another way, you’d think the maker of the Chevy Volt would have a particularly clear understanding of the shifting marketplace for internal combustion engines. This, alas, is not the story the New York Times tells.
The focus of the Times story is on GM’s five-year project to find ways to re-capture the eroding youth market and re-ignite its love for the automobile. The project, conducted in collaboration with Scratch, the brand consulting arm of MTV, has been entirely focused on surface details and branding. Here are the key details:
The five-year strategic vision that Scratch has developed for Chevrolet, kept quiet until now, stretches beyond marketing to a rethinking of the company’s corporate culture. The strategy is to infuse General Motors with the same insights that made MTV reality shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom” breakout hits. . . . Last summer, Mr. Martin and his team temporarily transformed part of the G.M. lobby into a loftlike space reminiscent of a coffee shop in Austin or Seattle, with graffiti on the walls and skateboards and throw pillows scattered around. . . . On a recent Tuesday morning in the General Motors Technical Center, which was designed by Eero Saarinen, a couple of car executives huddled around a “persona board” in the color and trim laboratory.
They studied a collage loaded with images of hip products like headphones created by Dr. Dre, a tablet computer and a chunky watch. The board inspired new Chevrolet colors, like “techno pink,” “lemonade” and “denim,” aimed at “a 23-year-old who shops at H&M and Target and listens to Wale with Beats headphones,” said Rebecca Waldmeir, a color and trim designer for Chevrolet.
Allow me to summarize. (Wait, first allow me to gawp in bewildered amusement. What exactly are the “insights” contained in Jersey Shore, and how exactly would you "infuse" an automaker with said insights? Should they invite assembly-line workers to nickname their abdominal muscles? Should the CEO and CFO make a video of themselves having a drunken slapfight at a Detroit nightclub?)
Okay. Now allow me to summarize: GM recognized a fundamental shift in a key market, namely that kids weren’t getting drivers’ licenses or buying cars or generally idealizing automotive culture the way they once were. GM’s response, even as other parts of the same company had staked its future on electric vehicles, was to steal a couple of names for eyeshadow tints from Loreal and turn their lobby into the a sitcom set for a third-rate knockoff of Friends.
This isn’t innovation, folks. This isn’t even the sea into which innovation accidentally gets turfed as it cruises through en route to greener pastures. I’m left to assume that even among all those assembled skateboards and Beats headphones, no one from MTV had the temerity to show the GM execs a rerun or two of The Simpsons – in particular an episode called “Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie” from Season 8 in the show’s heyday.
In said episode, as Simpsons fans know from the title alone, the beloved ultraviolent cat-and-mouse cartoon “Itchy & Scratchy” is suffering a steep decline in ratings. The studio bosses bring in a range of experts, including Krusty the Klown and a buzzword-spouting consultant, to help generate a new character that will appeal to these fickle kids today.
If only Fox weren’t so stingy with YouTube clips, I would link to the masterful satire of a corporate boardroom brainstorming session that ensues. In any case, the geniuses around the table come up with an in-your-face, proactive cartoon dog who likes to get biz-zay (“consistently and thoroughly”). Krusty the Klown calls for “a schmeer of surfer” to be added, while the consultant recommends that the animators “rasta-fy him by 10 percent or so.” The resulting character is a lingo-spouting, shamelessly pandering hipster dog named Poochie, clad in sunglasses and sideways baseball cap and leaning on a surfboard.
Poochie is, of course, an utter failure, so much so that in his second appearance, the animation cel he’s drawn on is physically removed from the screen in mid-episode so he can return to his “home planet” – which evidently is a boardroom at MTV’s marketing arm. Because this is exactly what’s happened down at GM. They’ve spent who knows how many millions on a five-year strategic visioning campaign, the upshot of which is that Chevy should rasta-fy its subcompacts by 10 percent or so. In the face of the end of cheap energy and the dawn of climate change, the urban migration of American youth and the emerging reality of Peak Car, they’re launching the all-new Chevrolet Poochie.
Good luck with all that attitude, GM. I don’t know what you think you’re in, but it isn’t my face.
To trade Simpsons quotes 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
(Hey, did I ever mention I wrote a book about The Simpsons awhile back that the hip British magazine Q called “the definitive” book on the subject? Because I did. And you could, you know, buy it.)