The New GM, Clueless as the Old GM

Hey you - a 60% owner of General Motors.  Are you worried about the innovative dynamism of the post-bankruptcy, government-owned GM?  Are you anxious about whether they are truly committed to excellence? Have no fear, kick-back and have a Margarita.

Because this week, the company proudly announced via a press release that they are launching an online suggestion box called

"Tell Fritz." Gee, wow, holy crap, that’s the kind of disruptive thinking we need.

And as a measure of how desperate the media is for any stirring of life in the old jalopy, the Wall Street Journal actually wrote a story about it. 

There are three devastating and telling problems with Tell Fritz.

a) It’s laughably unoriginal. There are more than one million search hits for "online suggestion box."   Thousands of companies have one. Is GM is so sheet-metaled from the world they don't realize that is a digitally ancient idea, and that it’s an embarrassment to make a big hoo-ha about it?

And it gets worse.  Go visit the site and you’ll see that the copy describes "Tell Fritz" as a request for suggestions.  But in the accompanying video on the site, Fritz bungles the story.  First, he gets the name wrong, calling it the "Ask Fritz Blog if you will."   Then he goes on to describe it as a place to get questions answered; that’s not a suggestion box. 

The guy is clearly out of his element.  And how sloppy is that mistake?  We’re counting on them to make cars with the features of the future, and they can’t even keep their own site features straight.  The fact that they don’t even know the difference between a blog and an online suggestion box illuminates their corporate thickness. 

What’s happening here is that they’re using social media as a placation strategy, without any real understanding of how it works. (And we can only grimly estimate how many taxpayers dollars went into building this fiasco of a website)

b) Even if you think "Tell Fritz" is a really important step, have the smarts to execute it with some follow-through.  Take Starbucks.  Their version of "Tell Fritz" - "My Starbucks Idea" is fully blown-out: you share your ideas, the community votes and discusses the ideas.  Most important, you get to watch their progress. 

By contrast, GM has nothing but a lame little box for your suggestions with a 255 maximum character limit.  (If you can rescue the domestic car industry in 300 characters, sorry, we’re not interested.) That’s the extent of it.  No follow-through, no opportunity for the community to build on the ideas or for GM to engage in a conversation.  Just a black hole.

The rest of the website is equally redolent of corporate committee-making, including incessant repetition of the "reinvention" meme, links that take you to PR propaganda, invitations to exciting chats on subjects like "Buick and GMC" and dreary photos of company leadership.

c) Even if executed well, this online suggestion box is nothing more than digital theater, a transparent attempt to make the company seem cool Which it won’t. (The GM Twitter feed, which they have been strenuously pushing, has only 1,714 followers; the CEO of Zappos has over a million followers.)  Social media isn’t a business strategy, it’s a medium where business strategy gets executed.

The real problem is that GM is afraid to lead, and Tell Fritz reminds us of their fearfulness. Leadership means taking consumers to a place where they want to go, even if they don’t know it or understand it yet. That takes courage.  But GM has been so bludgeoned for not listening to the market that their response is to over-listen. (This is an unintended consequence of all those furious Senators berating Rick Wagoner and Fritz Henderson for not being responsive.)

A new, smaller, bankruptcy-chagrined GM won’t recapture the American mind and the American mood by being an order-taker. 

When GM and Ford owned the culture with their muscle cars, it wasn’t because they polled, surveyed and canvassed car buyers.  And it wasn’t a "Tell Steve" functionality that inspired the iPod or the iPhone over at Apple.  Visionary designers possess a creative alchemy that combines an un-ignited spark in the consumer’s fantasy life with technology and hurtles the result into existence.

Fritz Henderson has promised that at General Motors "Business as usual is over." Well, I’m not sure that’s true.  The company is still trapped in PR-inflected hyperbole; the Chevy Volt website proclaims that the The Extended-Range Electric Vehicle that is re-defining the automotive world is no longer just a rumor. In fact, its propulsion system is so revolutionary, it’s unlike any other vehicle or electric car that’s ever been introduced.

To the extent GM has departed from business as usual, let’s hope that Tell Fritz and its other granite-footed attempts to humanize and ingratiate the brand aren’t the highlights.  I’m not hopeful.  A new spot for the 2010 Buick LaCrosse "one of the automaker’s most-critical post-bankruptcy initiatives" is so flagrantly pathetic that even their éminence grise Bob Lutz, who used to run product for the company and now runs marketing publically complained that the spot "irks" him.

Putting the spot aside, "LaCrosse" itself has a deadly ring.  It embodies everything hollow and false about the old GM and its transparently pretentious approach to naming cars.  And do you pronounce it as LA-crosse, faux French style, or luh-KRAWS, as in the sport that can get you an athletic scholarship to a good college?

Either way, it’s not going to attract the younger buyers who are crucial to Buick’s health. Do you know anyone who would willingly answer the question What kind of car did you buy with a "LaCrosse?

I think I’ll "Tell Fritz" that myself. Will let you know if he answers.