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Big 3's Job 1: Relevance

In his now famous brush-off of Detroit and its problems, President Bush said GM, Ford and Chrysler need to make more "relevant" products.

In his now famous brush-off of Detroit and its problems, President Bush said GM, Ford and Chrysler need to make more “relevant” products.

After avoiding the Big Three throughout his presidency, Bush finally sat down with GM's Rick Wagoner, Ford's Alan Mulally and Chrysler's Tom LaSorda following the mid-term elections.

They spoke about soaring health-care costs, steel tariffs and currency manipulation, but there was no indication they spoke about relevance.

They should have.

Bush's reference was widely interpreted to mean Detroit needs to sell more hybrid-electric vehicles, but the relevancy issue runs far deeper.

Several varieties of hybrid-electric vehicles will be offered by all three auto makers during the next several years, but J.D. Power & Associates predicts HEVs will have less than a 5% share of the U.S. market by 2013.

Even if the Big Three's technology is superior, HEVs, alone, will barely begin to solve their market share woes. Quality and fuel-economy improvements may not help either. Detroit already has vehicles that top quality lists and have class-leading fuel economy, and they still sell poorly.

GM, Ford and Chrysler are suffering a catastrophic loss of market share because they no longer even make it onto many shopping lists because long ago buyers were won over by Toyota's quality, Honda's practicality or BMW's brand equity.

The Big Three's quality is competitive, and they say they've got some great new vehicles and technology coming. What's more, they are aggressively using the latest Web-based technology to collect customer data and acquire sales leads.

But much of their traditional advertising is not doing the job.

Cadillac Global Marketing Director Liz Vanzura made The Wall Street Journal's list of 50 Women to Watch for switching Cadillac's longtime ad agency Leo Burnett to Modernista, which creates ads for Hummer. Vanzura's peers should follow her lead.

The change means Cadillac's television ads now feature the music of controversial artists such as punk rocker Iggy Pop instead of Benny Goodman or even Led Zeppelin.

In 1971, I saw Iggy break a light bulb on stage and writhe in the broken glass as part of his act. It caught my attention.

He caught my attention again when I heard his voice on a commercial for the Cadillac XLR. I would not have noticed otherwise.

As we head into the auto show season, getting people's attention has to be Job One for Detroit's Big Three.

If they make that crucial first step, they can show the car-buying public — and President Bush — just how “relevant” they have become.

Drew Winter is editor of Ward's AutoWorld.

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