What Detroit’s Big 3 Can Learn From Big Tobacco

Remember those magical lights that (according to advertising) would help you live a life of wealth, opulence and excess on the French Riviera? Those were the days of Peter Stuyvesant and as a child growing up in South Africa, I would be exposed to these commercials when I went to see age appropriate movies.

Today they’re called “cancer sticks” and every single box of taxed cigarettes you buy contains a succinct, eloquent and not-so-subtle friendly message: smoking kills. It used to be a little more esoteric and ambiguous, warning us about our “general” health, but soon went straight for the jugular by talking about birth defects and finally, the coup de grace (literally): death.

Over the course of the last month or so, we’ve seen the Big 3 make their pilgrimage to Washington — first in their private corporate jets and then in their hybrids (John Candy would be proud) — to make their cases for a $25 billion bailout. Throughout this process, they’ve continued to advertise as if everything were just hunky dory.

Great news people: The Chevy Red Tag Sale is back or what about Chrysler’s Year-End-Sell-A-Thon? Purchase low today because the entire damn company might be gone tomorrow.

If that isn’t a disconnect, I don’t know what is.

Let me be clear: I’m not jumping on the band(station)wagon by bashing the automakers. What I am saying is that now — more than ever — if what is good for GM is good for America, then the Big 3 need to prove it. And fast.

Pretending that everything is just business as usual is delusional at best and negligent at worst. What is required now is direct, honest, open and authentic conversation with scared employees, affected partners, cautious buyers and skeptical critics.

Ex-crayonista Scott Monty, who heads up Ford’s social media practice, is doing just that with frequent and refreshingly honest commentary and dialogue on his personal blog and via his Twitter account. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. The entire company needs to rally around these kinds of efforts to elevate this kind of a commitment from an individual to a group level; from a tactical one-off to a strategic, organizational and cultural imperative.

So should the Red Tag Sales and Year-End-Sell-A-Thons (or at least the advertising thereof) continue? Yes, but with an important change. I would institute a warning band at the bottom of every ad (television, radio, print, online, et al.) that is less of a “smoking kills” ultimatum and more of a “We’re in trouble, but we’re going to be OK. Find out the facts and how you can help: Join the conversation at xyz.com.”

Why not vest the public in the future of the Big 3 automakers? Who in their right mind wants to stand by and watch nearly 2 million jobs disappear from an already ailing economy. After 9/11, many customers of Southwest either did not claim refunds on flights not flown or proactively sent money to the airline (“You need it more than we do”). Where’s that loyalty when you need it?

Quite clearly, the solution does not lie in ignorance; nor does it lie in ignoring the problem and “hoping” it goes away. There’s a tremendous amount of trust that has either been eroded or destroyed and which needs to be rebuilt and earned back. How does one go about earning back trust? The answer is one relationship at a time.

As outlined in my book, Join the Conversation, the three-pillared approach of community, dialogue and partnership presents a potent combination of intense commitment and transparent demonstration required to begin restoring the bonds that have been until recently the backbone of the U.S. economy.

Community — Obama did it with micropayments. Why not emulate that best practice with a truly inclusive grassroots program? Why not approach all the performers in the music industry who have used the various iconic brand names in their lyrics and figure out a way to step in and save their beloved Cadillac from extinction?

Dialogue — A classic opportunity for not only the usual suspects of blogging, podcasting, Twittering and the like, but perhaps something a bit more live and streaming. I know the bigwigs at Google are lamenting their fallen stock price, but I wonder if YouTube Live would provide a pro-bono platform to deliver against the fundraising efforts.

Partnership — Work with the entire community to develop logos, promotional material, supporting entertainment, word-of-mouth referrals, etc., but don’t stop there. Use this opportunity to stay close to the vocal public to make sure that “what’s good for America is good for GM, Chrysler and Ford.

The tobacco industry has had to radically retool, even rethink its very existence. In some respects, it has tried to hoodwink the public by changing company names (is introducing a new model every year any different?), diluting “harmful emissions” or diversifying into new product lines and businesses. Fortunately, for the automotive industry, it is nowhere as harmful as its tobacco counterpart, but the situation is no less dire.

This is a wake-up call and a one in a million shot at redemption. While the downside is known (extinction), the upside is the real wild card — limitless in terms of regaining a domestic and even global leadership position. The road ahead is treacherous, paved with uncertainty and tremendous obstacles. Through the power of listening, responding, joining and starting the kinds of conversations that change attitudes, perceptions, buying behavior, lives and even the world, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Gentlemen, start your engines.

Joseph Jaffe is chief interruptor at crayon. He blogs at www.jaffejuice.com and can be reached at jaffe@crayonville.com.

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Scott Monty’s heartfelt post

Jaffe Juice’s from-the-heart post