During the early 1980s the domestic “big three” car companies had a challenge.
Imports were impacting sales, profits, market share and stock prices. They were worried. Cost cutting spread, threatening new vehicle programs, niche programs and low volume models. Corvette was losing money and the pressure for executives to do something grew. A number of executives at General Motors began to talk about the unthinkable:
possibly killing one of the greatest brand icons in the world.
For Corvette to highlight the brand and show the rest of GM what could be done throughout the company to compete with the imports. They spelled out multiple objectives for the project:
- Demonstrate to engineers the power of Right Brain Research and The Voice of the Customer for product design and development
- Achieve a common understanding of the challenge and solution amongst key Corvette stakeholders
- Form a closely knit team to reverse the sales trend for the brand when the newest model was introduced
- Convince the executive team to breathe new energy and funding into the Corvette brand
- And of course, to make the Corvette brand profitable again!
- Executive team, including Roger Smith, the Chairman of the Board
- GM Design Center staff, Corvette platform engineers and the marketing and advertising team for the brand
- The automotive magazine writers
- Dealership owners and their salespeople
- Corvette Owners
- Former Corvette Owners
- Porsche Owners
- Nissan 300Z Owners
The boy is in junior high-school. A Corvette pulls into the parking lot at his school generating an invisible electricity. The big man on campus (BMOC) from two years ago gets out and is immediately surrounded by action and attention.
But the years go by, the memory of this dynamic event and its impact on him sinks into the deep recesses of his mind. That “someday” he promised himself just does not seem to come to fruition. Work, family and jobs come and he enters middle age. He doesn’t consciously think about it again as his life unfolds.
How can a mere car have this impact on a person? Because the suggestion he gave himself in his pre-teen or early teen years, a suggestion that never leaves him, becomes a promise to himself, and a promise that the brand is making to him. He never really thinks about it this way, but the brand must deliver on the promise he imagines it made to him or he will feel betrayed.
The Corvette has to last him and all of its devotees for the rest of their lives. It has to last because that is what the brand is offering them – invulnerability. The car cannot show signs of deterioration or their dream will decay. The paint cannot peel. The car cannot begin to rattle. The parts cannot wear out. They have the highest standards for the car, much higher than for any other car or for anything else they buy. They do not realize it, but they are not likely to sell it, not ever. Many Corvette enthusiasts own more than one, some own several and a few own more than that!
This invulnerability is a crucial part of a brand promise. It is not what the company literally says or claims about the brand; rather, it is based on customer expectations which often can be irrational and impossible. Therefore, brand managers need to know for themselves what customers cannot even tell them directly about their expectations in a simple conversation.
The engineers and marketers at GM were surprised at how the “little” quality problems upset the Corvette owners.
There was more, a lot more to what we discovered, and as it all unfolded it was more than enough to offer hope to the executives at GM that the brand could be a winner again.
With a limit of $80 Million to invest in the new platform, getting the priorities in the right order in the design budget was essential for success. Our discoveries about what is most important to their customers allowed us to guide them in doing just that.