Wanted: $50 Million to Improve the Image of Detroit's Big Three

Plan Has Backing of Former Chrysler Chief Lee Iacocca; Automakers Less Enthusiastic

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DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- With the blessing of automotive luminary Lee Iacocca, three car guys are knocking on doors in hopes of raising $50 million a year to fund a marketing push to save Detroit. But after a year of trying, the project to redeem the Big Three's image hasn't opened any portals.

Lee Iacocca
Lee Iacocca Credit: AP
The idea is that the automakers' biggest problem at this point is not their product, but how they're perceived, so the triumvirate of executives wants to do a collective campaign on behalf of General Motors Corp., Chrysler and Ford Motor Co. To that end, the movers behind it -- all executives of Kelmenson, Davis & Associates, New York -- have spent the last year trying to create a nonprofit domestic auto-industry forum that would educate Americans about Detroit's importance to this country's business and societal fabric. Agency principal Leo Kelmenson was once head of former Chrysler agencies Bozell and FCB Worldwide.

Tony Kuhn, executive partner of the marketing advisory firm, takes credit for the idea, fashioned after his former client at Lowe, New York, the National Milk Processor Board. Mr. Kuhn said the goal is to raise a minimum of $50 million to pitch Americans on Detroit's importance to the nation, via public relations and a cable TV documentary handled by 45 North Productions, a company headed by John Damoose, Chrysler's VP-marketing until 1993.

The plans also call for an informational magazine and website called "American Drive," overseen by Automobile magazine founder and industry veteran David E. Davis, the other namesake in the firm.

But raising funds has been the major obstacle, in spite of dozens of solicitations to influential industry leaders, dealers, lawmakers, suppliers and the UAW Kelmenson Davis has made in the past year.

Iacocca support
One person whose support it has garnered is former Chrysler chief Mr. Iacocca. A spokeswoman for Mr. Iacocca said he knows about Kelmenson Davis' plan, endorses it and went as far as writing letters to auto executives and lawmakers on Mr. Kelmenson's behalf. "He's behind this 100%," she said.

Less enthusiastic are the Big Three. Steve Harris, VP-global communications of General Motors Corp., said "we support the concept," but declined Mr. Kelmenson's request last year for both "a significant investment" and his suggestion that Chairman-CEO Rick Wagoner take the lead on the effort, because the industry was softening at the time.

Mr. Harris said GM has done lots of grass-roots public-relations work for a long time, most recently attracting more than 1,300 people -- including economists, academia and charity group leaders -- who volunteered to speak on behalf of Detroit during the time of the congressional hearings. "We are still in touch with those people," he said.

Chrysler Chairman-CEO Bob Nardelli was also asked to participate, but declined, according to Kelmenson Davis. A Chrysler spokeswoman was unable to confirm or comment by press time.

Mr. Kelmenson also pitched the idea to Bill Ford. "We absolutely support the efforts of Mr. Kelmenson to promote the importance of the American auto industry," said a Ford spokesman. But "given today's business environment, the reality is that we simply cannot fund as many projects as in the past. We have decided to focus most of our marketing and communications dollars on efforts that differentiate and specifically promote Ford's new products and our leadership in fuel efficiency, quality, safety and smart technologies."

Said Mr. Kelmenson: "They don't want to be painted with the same brush" as GM or Chrysler.

And therein lies a big problem: getting all three competitors to play nicely. Ian Beavis, who recently joined IAG from Carat as exec VP of its auto group, said it would be difficult to pull off a nonprofit forum to push all Detroit's automakers as a group because they are different companies with different cultures.

Individual efforts
The other issue is, now that the Big Three have won their government bailout (or at least two of them have, since Ford has said is not currently in need of the cash), is a collective effort still needed? Mr. Beavis thinks not, though he said it is the perfect time for Motor City to individually work on repairing perceptions. That's because the spotlight has never shined brighter on the domestic industry, albeit because of the near-death experiences of GM and Chrysler.

Alexander Edwards, president of consultancy Strategic Vision, said Detroit needed an advocacy campaign 10 years ago, but today there are too many hurdles to fixing consumer views. Its research found that Americans actually want Detroit's car companies to suffer for the mistakes they made. "When Americans see in the news the car companies portrayed as arrogant, it doesn't mean they don't want Ford, GM and Chrysler to recover, but they would like to see them go through the struggles they've been going through the past 12 months."

Amazingly, buyer consideration has remained stable, Mr. Edwards said. Chevrolet, GM's volume brand, remains at 26% and the Ford brand is at 23%, following Toyota brand at 40% and Honda at 38%. "Detroit hasn't lost any consideration," he said. "All they did was stir up a lot of [consumer] anger."

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