Want to Build Popular Cars? Try Listening to Consumers

An Ad Age Editorial

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Here's a radical idea for one or both of the automakers now owned by the American people: Listen to what they want -- what they really want.

When a CarGuru survey of 1,700 people indicated that consumers would prefer to save Pontiac over Saturn, Hummer and Saab, some in the industry were shocked. Pontiac, after all, was the General Motors brand most likely to be killed rather than sold or saved.

Is that to say GM should reverse course on Pontiac? No. Marketers are rightly wary of polls and focus groups. It's often noted that consumers don't know what they want. They're notoriously fickle. GM and Ford, for example, kept cranking out monster-size trucks for a reason. Despite years of saying they wanted green options, consumers kept voting with their pocketbooks for the big wheels.

The trucks aside, though, the Big Three seemed to be completely unable to understand what Americans wanted in regular cars. Even now, they seem to struggle.

There's no shortage of professional opinions as to what consumers want. It just happens that those opinions fall into a few camps: what the marketer thinks consumers should want, what politicians think consumers should want, what activists think consumers should want.

Unless the first words out of their mouths are "dependability" and "visual appeal," they're wrong. GM and Chrysler should shut out such noise.

Both companies find themselves at a technological and existential crossroads. If they want to survive, perhaps they should consider social media, transparency and Web 2.0. Sure, they're all talking about these tools -- and GM and Ford have taken to Twitter -- but they should quit talking about them and embrace them.

Sure, an online survey isn't much to go on. But the web and social media can deliver larger groups and, with some creativity, more useful groups. Here's just one example. Instead of slapping banner ads on "mommy blogs," why not gather the bloggers in one location and pick their brains for a couple of days? Confront them with a sampling of cars from different automakers and see what they hate, what they like.

The information gleaned from them will certainly be more useful than the theories of government functionaries or the conventional wisdom of the same executives and consultants who've been striking out for the past couple of decades.

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