Despite billions and billions of dollars invested in new products during the last five years,Corp. continues to lose market share in the U.S. Worse yet, several signs suggest the company is going to lose a lot more share before it finally bottoms out.
Much has been written about why GM lost so much share over the last two decades, but what has got to worry the current management team is that the 2000 model lineup is not getting the job done. The company continues to surrender the market to its competitors, and this during the strongest sales in history.
Everyone knows the history of how GM had nearly 50% of the market 20 years ago; dropping below 30% in 1998 was a watershed event. So far this year, GM's share is down to 28%, a full percentage point lower than a year ago. Remember, in a 17 million-unit market each percentage point drop is the equivalent of losing 170,000 customers. And that practically is the equivalent of an entire assembly plant sitting idle.
Although GM puts on a brave face for public consumption and talks about the success of its midsize passenger cars and how it's converting more capacity to truck production, two developments should be sending off alarm bells throughout the company:
n First, GM's market share in California - long a bellwether for trends in the American auto market - has slipped to only 18%. GM now trailsMotor Co. in California by a wide margin and is in danger of seeing (16% share of market in California) surpass it in the next couple of years.
n Second, a prominent Internet automotive service provider tells me GM's share of online sales is only 18%. Not only does this match the California number, it may be a more accurate representation of GM's strength in the retail market, where fleet sales and A-plan cars (sold to employees and suppliers) are not counted.
There's a whole host of reasons why GM has been losing share over such a long period of time. There is much stronger competition today than there ever was in the past. There has been tremendous turmoil in the company's executive ranks and its sales structure. There have been self-inflicted strikes with the United Auto Workers and battles with dealers. But the main reason why GM is losing share is simple to figure out: Car buyers find GM's cars dull, and they are more attracted to the competition.
The 1990s was a tough decade for GM. It was technically bankrupt in 1991. It fired its chairman and president. It brought in a new management team of executives who put all their efforts into getting the company on a strong financial footing. And they succeeded. But in the process they stopped taking any risks in product design. GM was so financially weak it could not gamble to invest in a new car line that pushed the envelope stylistically.
As GM regained profitability, however, it continued to play it safe. Rather than let its designers and product planners use their own intuition and experience to stretch for the stars, it demanded that they be able to measure and quantify public acceptance of every shape and form before it went into production. It researched customer needs and used Mazlow's "Hierarchy of Needs" to prioritize what kind of content should go into cars. It brought customers into car clinics to figure out if they liked this grille or that one. It brought in brand managers from outside the auto industry to infuse new ideas and vitality into its marketing efforts.
The good news is that GM is offering customers a lot of value for the money. Its cars get good fuel economy and have decent reliability. But there's one important ingredient missing from the recipe: GM's products are largely devoid of emotion. For the most part they are blandly styled, offensive to no one. While the same charge can be leveled atMotor Corp., for example, at least it has a reputation for bullet-proof quality and excellent resale values that pull people into its products no matter how dull they look. GM hasn't achieved that kind of compelling reason to purchase its wares.
Corp. faced the same problem a decade ago and was able to turn its fortunes around in an amazingly short amount of time. It created products that people felt they just had to have. And it did it with sensational styling. It didn't clinic its products to death. Instead, it went with its intuition and experience, and did it pay off! Chrysler remembered what GM forgot: For the overwhelming majority of consumers, buying a new car is still an emotional experience.
Intuition is something that separates car guys from bean counters. The car guys intuitively know what makes a good car; the bean counters never will. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as both camps do their jobs, and there's a good balance between the two. The problem at GM is that the car guys have been kept on the bench too long. Now it's time to put them back in the game.