Why only Apple can save General Motors

by Kai Hsing

The problem with American automakers is not that “liberals” prefer buying foreign brands, but rather that American automakers have a severe design and brand image problem.

Since my last post, I began thinking about my own personal consumer choices and how many of them could be considered “American.” While there is much acrimony about the supposed decline of America as a brand in the world (both commercially and politically), I think that there is still a ways to fall before we hit rock bottom.

Charles J. Brown of Undiplomatic wrote in the Huffington Post recently about, among other things, the problematic perception that American brands enjoy among “lefty/coastie/academic community” liberals. We’re all probably guilty of it in some way or form – it is, as Brown asserts, as part of our self-image as “lattes, Whole Foods, yoga, and Mac laptops.”

Mentioning Apple is interesting, primarily because they are arguably one of the most successful American companies both in terms of their sheer profit and cultural cachet. Apple is unequivocally successful not only in terms of their sales, which remain strong even in these difficult economic times, but also in the fact that they evoke strong positive emotional feelings among these supposedly anti-American liberals.

So what is it about Apple that makes it stand out from the competition, American or otherwise? As it’s been said many times before about Apple’s success – it all comes down to the design. Apple’s is not only elegant, minimal, unobtrusive and beautiful, it’s highly useful, cutting-edge, accessible and engaging. When’s the last time you said that about an American car?

Which is why it bothers me when Brown writes:

Let’s make buying American cars cool again. Let’s make it so that movie stars will want to arrive at the Oscars in Ford Fusions instead of Toyota Priuses. Let’s make it so that high school boys will want to drive Mustangs, Camaros, and Tesla Roadsters instead of Porsches and Lamborghinis. Let’s make it so that athletes will want buy the Cadillac STS instead of the BMW 5 series.

It’s not that there is an inherent bias among the “liberal elite” that makes them less interested in any American brand – though I will acknowledge the value of at least perceived exoticism when it comes to brands (see Häagen-Dazs). The more important thing about how people perceive your brand is whether people find it emotionally engaging, as well as useful.

This is something American car makers have not inspired in consumers, liberal or conservative, in a long long time – but here’s to hoping that they will in the near future.