Steve Jobs and the Auto Industry

October 10th, 2011

There are some great lessons for the auto biz in the career of the late Steve Jobs.

They have very little to do with the obvious—adding iPhone apps and infotainment systems like Ford’s Sync to cars.

As you might expect, there has been a lot of laudatory garbage written about this revolutionary guy and his connection to the auto world. Usually it’s about “the iPod fundamentally changing how we entertain ourselves behind the wheel.” Sheesh!

What Steve Jobs really can teach us is not product application but basic lessons in marketing and management. His genius was to create the best and make people want it. He knew how to change people’s minds about what they buy.

I wrote earlier about how ridiculous it was for GM’s Joel Ewanick to propose that General Motors align with “true global brands like Apple.” Do you really think Apple is some kind of model you can copy, Joel? Making Malibus is not like making iPhones, and GM has to learn how to make more desirable commodities that people need, not the Apple-style conversation pieces that people want.

Most cars are surely not Ferarri 458 Italias. But mass-market carmakers are a me-too lot. Badge engineering and producing too many products are among their worst vices, as Jerry Garrett pointed out in a very good piece that highlights Steve Jobs’s insistence in “not making crap” and insisting on great products.

For example, Jobs refused to get into the netbook frenzy and instead brought out the iPad. The car industry goes the opposite route. There are now so many crossover vehicles (more than 62), says Garrett, that he can’t count them.

To understand how Jobs operated, you really should read Guy Kawasaki’s piece in CNET. Kawasaki was one of the chief Apple “evangelists,” working closely with Jobs at different times, and he offers a summary of what made Apple the success it was. Some of these points could well apply to the auto business.

Among the most important is the differentiation of value and price. What Apple’s success has clearly demonstrated is that people buy items that they value, and that price is not really the dominant consideration. Nor is public opinion or the focus group in creating them.

We can’t all have Ferarri Italias, but we can and do desire cars with individuality, build quality, performance and style. For most people, these are elements of value. Commodity products can have these things: The Ford Mustang (right) was an outstanding success in the ‘60s because it had style, above all. It was the iPod of its time and now has become almost a parody of what it was.

A company can only produce iconic cars like this by stressing engineering, design, and out-of-the-box thinking, as Apple does. Management’s business is not to produce cookie-cutter cars but vehicles that will excite people sufficiently to lay down their bread and buy them. That is, they will endow them with value.

Do Chrysler, GM and Ford show signs of making, finally, cars that stress value?

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  1. Randy
    October 11th, 2011 at 06:40 | #1

    I thought is was ironic that you show an image of a Mustang, which was truly the same type of product that the iphone was. But under the aegis of “brand management” it has become an icon for resistance to change, boredom, and lack of innovation. Ditto for the comment from a mindless “me too” GM brand manager who obviously doesn’t get it. Brand management and “OWG’s” (old white guys) are the ruination of GM and similar companies. Even Toyota has become infected and turned into a bland purveyor of blandness. Would BMW melt down and disappear if they produced a car without a BMW grille?

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