General Motors is trying to change its image, fast. So it chose the only person on hand that made sense as its image czar: an old car guy with some new ideas.
"(GM's) image is in tatters, and they need a real jump-start," says Peter DeLorenzo, editor of AutoExtremist.com. "I think Bob will bring it."
Bob Lutz, 77, was going to retire at the end of 2009, but decided to stick around and help GM revamp its advertising, internal communications and public relations. Lutz is the same guy who propelled GM's product design into the 21st century, and most critics say his tenure has helped the company turn out some pretty good vehicles.
"When I made the decision to retire, I thought we'd be in bankruptcy for a long time. I thought we'd lose our freedom to design and build the products the public wants as opposed to the products the government wants to see on the road," Lutz says. "I thought all of the fun is gone from the business. ... But lo, and behold, the government task force were not a bunch of ogres. They were extremely helpful, and their only agenda was to make GM the best company it could be."
Now, Lutz says, GM has to move fast to convince consumers it's changed. While the product design changes he made are taking hold over years, the ad changes could take hold in a month or so.
"There's a lot of stuff that irks me" with GM's current advertising, Lutz says.
Take, for example, recent print ads intended to talk about GM's car buyback program in case of job loss or illness. They were so weighed down with print, Lutz says, they quickly lost their meaning. He also dislikes the current Buick ads that show a Hollywood director fawning over the Enclave crossover and all-new 2010 LaCrosse sedan.
"That Buick commercial tested very well, which is not the same as saying that it's an effective ad," is how he tactfully put it in a Web chat this week. "I think you will very quickly see a drastic change in the tone and content of our advertising. And if you don't, it will mean that I have failed."
Lutz, a pilot and former Marine with a penchant for cigars who is known to commute by helicopter from his home outside Ann Arbor, Mich., to GM's headquarters in Detroit, has a reputation as a colorful speaker. That's sometimes landed him in trouble, but he's a favorite with the automotive media, who crowd around him at events to get his vivid, tell-it-like-it-is take on whatever he feels like talking about: cars, the state of the economy and global warming (of which he is famously skeptical).
Once he spent the bulk of an interview bemoaning the loss of scantily clad models at auto shows, pointing out that at one time, the Paris auto show was filled with topless models.
DeLorenzo says that although Lutz has said some things in the past that could come back to haunt him — such as once calling global warming "a total crock" — he is in tune with what people want, and has had a role in improving GM's green image.
"He's been one of the chief boosters of the Chevrolet Volt," GM's electric car due on the market in late 2010, says DeLorenzo. "To label Bob as someone who's not appreciative of the green sensibility or where a lot of consumers' minds are going, I don't think is accurate or fair."
Still, Lutz stands by his skepticism on hybrids, which he says are having trouble selling in the current market because gas prices are too low and the cars are not cheap. People still want bigger cars, he says, with more power.
"Other than in the media, there is not a groundswell toward green vehicles in the United States," Lutz says. "In fact, they're a very hard sell."
Lutz returned to GM, where he got his start in 1963, in September 2001 as vice chairman of product development. He spent 12 years at Ford in the 1970s and '80s and 12 years at Chrysler until 1998.
He was asked by former GM CEO Rick Wagoner to rejoin GM and help the company improve its product lineup. He started by giving the designers more control of the cars, rather than allowing the finance department to have the final call.
Ron Stampfl, a marketing professor at San Diego State University, says Lutz helped repair GM's product lineup to a remarkable point, and his challenge now is to get shoppers to consider the cars. "The problem is getting people willing to try a GM product early in their shopping process," Stampfl says. "Right now, it's not even on many people's shopping lists." That's something that can be fixed with effective advertising, Stampfl says.
And it's among Lutz's top priorities. "We must do a far more effective job communicating what we are and who were are," he says. "We have to reconnect with this depressingly large part of the American public who won't give us consideration."
Lutz expects to have impact within a month or so. His first meeting to go over future advertising was Tuesday, and before going into the meeting, he said he didn't expect to approve much of it.
And although he'll be overseeing communications, Lutz says he expects the public relations department also still will need to keep tabs on him and what he says publicly.
"I expect people to step in," he says. "But having said that, I do believe we have to be much bolder and much more self-aware, and in some cases, more controversial or willing to tell it like it is rather than putting out a more sanitized version."