Detroit's Perception Problem

Dear Detroit auto makers: You have a big problem you've ignored for a long time. You can't ignore it any longer. The majority of Americans now think your cars and trucks are to put it politely crap. They believe you are way behind the Japanese and Europeans in quality and technology. They think your executives and union workers make too much money. They think your vehicles are not as safe, get worse

Dear Detroit auto makers: You have a big problem you've ignored for a long time. You can't ignore it any longer.

The majority of Americans now think your cars and trucks are — to put it politely — crap. They believe you are way behind the Japanese and Europeans in quality and technology. They think your executives and union workers make too much money. They think your vehicles are not as safe, get worse fuel economy and pollute more. Worst of all, they believe purchasing one of your brands will reflect poorly on them. This is the key reason why you are losing market share.

The national media are in on this, too. Anytime they report something negative about the auto industry, the reference never includes Tokyo or Stuttgart. It's always Detroit.

You know what I'm saying is true, because I've talked to you about this. But you keep deluding yourselves with the mistaken belief that by keeping your nose to the grindstone, working harder and making better cars and trucks, you'll overcome the problem. I have bad news. That alone is not going to work.

The reason: You don't play the game very well. Auto makers not based in Detroit are better at public relations. Even in areas where you actually are ahead, the perception is that foreign brands are in the lead. And as you well know, perception is reality.

The foreign auto makers are much better at convincing consumers and the media they care about people and the planet. They willingly invest in products and programs that will reap huge public-relations benefits, even if they meet with mediocre success in the marketplace.

The value of these efforts cannot be captured by your financial accounting systems or your econometric models. That's why you don't make these kinds of investments. You're very good at data-driven analysis, but I'm talking about the soft side — the ability to get inside people's heads and make them think positively about your company and your products.

Advertising is not going to do it. There is nothing you can say in your ads that will make people believe you are suddenly in their camp. You need to have other independent sources making the claim for you — sources that in many cases today you despise and disparage.

The one thing you have going for you is that most American consumers secretly would love to see you win. They want to believe in the home team. But in the meantime, they will continue to buy import brands.

The path to their hearts is not another fire-sale promotion. It is a long-term vision, clearly but humbly communicated and backed by tangible efforts that will make them want to be a part of it.

Changing people's perceptions is one of the hardest things to do. But it can be done. And considering your sinking market share, you have no choice.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and Speed Channel.

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