When we were a teenager learning to drive, our father told us of a Dodge Dart he once owned where the shift lever came off in his hand. We laughed as he recalled the f***-ing crappy design and how it almost killed him, as he went down a hill across an intersection with the rod waving in the air … it was in fact the first time we heard our dad drop the F bomb.
More than 25 years later we still think of American cars as substandard, even though some, especially Ford, have improved quality and come forth with innovative, efficient designs.The ad above, for the 72 Chevy Vega, may represent the worst automobile of all time, according to a U.S. consumer survey. That car was littered with design defects; pistons were mismatched to cylinders, the carburetor tended to catch fire, the body oozed rust. Bob Eicholz of Hollywood, Calif., commented “after 20,000 miles of gentle driving, it needed a valve job, and possibly a new engine, a new clutch, a new transmission sync gear and new tires.”
The irony of marketing is that consumers need incredible stimuli to think differently about a product tomorrow, but they carry word-of-mouth opinions from yesterday for decades. Once a person’s mind is set against a product, it’s almost impossible to change. The recoil of Americans as they ponder a vast bailout for the U.S. auto industry is almost amazingly unpatriotic, until you consider the pent-up anger consumers feel based on decades of automotive design incompetence. Yes, U.S. cars have improved dramatically … but buyers still remember.
As you head into the new year it might be worth mapping what customers think about your past products. Like a therapist trying to improve a relationship, you can’t move people forward until you address the sins of the past.