Shake it up

Dec 3, 2009

Bob Lutz is doing it again.

The 77-year-old vice chairman of marketing at the new GM is moving as fast as President Barack Obama – whose first eight months have been marked by rapid-fire national legislation – to remake, reposition, rebuild, re-promote, refine and help rewrite GM’s future history.

And with GM’s too-iffy record on vehicles that people really want, a real marketing maven is needed.

But does GM really have one? The one?

Lutz came out of a planned retirement at the behest of CEO Fritz Henderson to help bring GM into the 21st century. Lutz immediately took over responsibility for advertising from Mark LaNeve, who had been GM’s marketing chief since 2005. LaNeve retains responsibility for GM’s U.S. sales.

“If GM ads look [in six months] the same as they did six months ago, then somebody really needs to ask, ‘Why is Lutz still here?'” Lutz was quoted in Automotive News in early August. Lutz had been highly critical of the first of six ads planned to tout the “new” Buick aimed at younger-than-geezer drivers.

Obviously, he’s not a fan of LaNeve’s vision, and a believer in his own.

Lutz has stirred the interest of the industry by bringing a different look to his team: Bryan Nesbitt, former head of GM’s North American design is now general manager of Cadillac; Susan Docherty, former Buick-GMC VP became that auto groups’ general manager (the Buick ad that Lutz berated came under Docherty’s purview); GM’s European sales manager, Brent Dewar, came on board as a Chevy veep. There were other position shifts in Lutz’s cabinet.

The marketing honcho parades an impressive automotive pedigree going back to 1963 GM. In his 40-plus automotive years he’s mostly been at or near the top of GM, Ford and Chrysler, plus had high-level stints with BMW and battery maker Exide.

Add to that his 10-plus years as a Marine fighter pilot in the ’50s and ’60s, and you’ve pert near got yourself a John Wayne of the automotive world.

Never a shrinking violet, Lutz is a mover who shakes, and says and gets what he wants.

But there have been the faux pas that bothered the auto markets. For example, Lutz had said in July that the Pontiac G8, a rear-wheel-drive 256-HP V6, would be re-badged as a Chevy Caprice. The Pontiac nametag is planned to end.

But as soon as Lutz uttered the words about the G8, his boss, Henderson, let reporters carry the word that, “Bob Lutz says a lot of things, but he works for me.” A day later, in GM’s blog, Lutz backed off his earlier statement: “The G8 will not be a Caprice after all.  Upon further review and careful study, we simply cannot make a business case for such a program. Not in today’s market, in this economy, and with fuel regulations what they are and will be.”

Two paragraphs later, Lutz added, “In no way, and this is very important, in no way does this mean we are backing away from performance, or backing away from rear-wheel drive.”

Is Lutz to Henderson as veep Joe Biden is to Obama?

The G8 and what became the “new” GTO both were Lutz-promoted gas guzzlers. They also proved to be sales failures.

And then there’s Chevy’s Volt, the one that, when he was GM’s vice chairman for global products, Lutz pushed to get built to compete with Toyota’s successful Prius. The Volt concept was unwrapped at the 2007 Detroit auto show with great fanfare, and Lutz told the media that the hybrid’s cost would be in the high-$20,000 range. A price tag closer to $40,000 is what insiders see for the 2011 debut of the Volt. That’ll hurt GM.

Is Lutz’s shaking and stirring going to really change the new GM, or is the old arrogance from his “old” GM going to re-emerge, again bothering and confusing the industry?

Even John Wayne’s noble “The Green Berets” couldn’t hide the fact that the Vietnam War wasn’t winnable.