Musings of an Aussie design strategist gone North

Does GM Design “get” Social Media more than Ford? The Lab is an emphatic “Yes”

It’s been a while since I’ve turned my mind to the GM empire (in fact the last time I saw fit to comment was when the highly questionable GMC Terrain surfaced…). But conversations with the head of social media at GMH (Holden) and a little discovery I made yesterday has got me thinking about the people’s car company all over again.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks discussing the ability of social media to open up dialogue between automotive designer and customer. The benefits, as I see them, are twofold. Firstly, designers get access to crucial insight from the people they often have the least professional contact with, their customers. Secondly, the designers themselves, as opposed to the cringe-inducing PR lackeys, can help spread the message about their work, breaking down the hitherto impermeable walls of the design studio.

Lo and behold, GM has jumped into the ring with a new project called The Lab (take a look at it here) and it seems to be a solid first step in engaging designer and customer in a productive, conversational way. This marks a turning point  in the use of social media as a truly two-way street into and out of automotive companies outside of the PR department. It’s also heralds the incorporation of social media research into the product development process by enabling access between customers and the people responsible for designing their cars.

Traditionally, market research consultancies were commissioned to suss out customer need and wants on behalf of design departments. Somewhat predictably, market researchers, with their marketing imperatives, ask marketing questions and present their marketing answers, mostly metrics, to… designers.

Based on my experience, marketers and designers very rarely speak the same language and, unsurprisingly, rooms of blank stares and yawns are the usual outcome. At best, there might be a clue or two hidden in the marketer-speak for design management to interpret for the benefit of the designers. At worst, nobody in design gets it and they go off and sketch something for themselves (probably on the back of the latest trend report from marketing).

Somewhat notoriously, Ford has tried to get around this disconnect by building a persona around the marketing metrics (her name is Antonella) but at the end of the day she’s a fabrication, too easily moulded to suit the whims of the various stakeholders in the design/marketing/sales triumvirate.

Recognising that the traditional market research model fails to connect with designers and that there’s no substitute for real people, a small number of ex-designers and design strategists (people who, in this context, sit at the confluence of market insight and design output) have set up consultancies that aim to ask the right kind questions of customers in order to get design-relevant responses.

The key to their success is that their outcomes are presented in ways that make sense to designers and the marketing/sales teams. It’s a largely successful approach, and having worked in this kind of arrangement, I can attest to the palpable sense of relief expressed by designers when another of their ilk gets up and delivers truly useful, comprehensible market insights. Importantly, these consultancies strive to deliver outcomes where the direct implications for the designer’s work are clearly defined.

Where this approach falls down, however, is when you want to establish a richer, longer-lasting conversation with the customer. The project-by-project basis on which the older strategy consultancies work is just too finite and the idea of using the internet to reach more people in a more conversational way just hasn’t occurred to them.

This is why GM’s Lab experiment is so interesting. It cuts out the woefully inappropriate (for designers) market research companies, the simplex, time-limited information stream of the design strategy consultancies and gets right to the customer in a way that openly encourages dialogue.

Admittedly, there are a couple of issues that come to mind. Firstly, if the content isn’t inclusive and word isn’t spread far enough, the only people the designers will be talking to are the die-hard fans (although die-hards have their place as brand evangelists, it’s actually Joe Average who almost always provides the most surprising, useful insights). Their current content videos are too one-sided and way too corporate for this commentator.

Secondly, I have an inkling that asking the right kind of questions, the analysis of the responses and, most crucially, maintaining the momentum of the project will still require dedicated design strategists. Then again, I would say that. I still believe that outside consulting will continue to have an important role in defining design projects, a social media stream will simply provide another, more immediate source of feedback for designers to bounce off.

As an experiment, The Lab ties in closely with the views I’ve expressed in the past and GM should be applauded for their pioneering efforts. It will be fascinating to watch how the dialogue between designer and customer develops over the months and, hopefully, years to come. Ultimately, it represents a bold step towards opening up the design process in a useful, engaging way and a wonderfully appropriate one. I mean, it is the people’s car company after all.

[Source: General Motors, Thanks to @cbarger for the original tweet]


Filed under: Car Culture, Collaboration, Design, Design Strategy, Social Media, Things I like, Web, , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Responses

  1. Brian DR1665 says:

    The Lab is a step in the right direction, but there is serious risk of backfire if they don’t do this right. If you check the ‘about’ frame over at The Lab, it mentions that they’re not going to share ideas they want to keep secret from the competition, but they WILL be sharing ideas “that need some final tweaking.”

    First of all, if they have something so hot that it’s likely to be copied, they would do themselves a service actually SHOWING us. Problem is, their internal processes are still just as perverse and inefficient as ever. Since they know they can’t show a new car and then quickly take it to market, they would have to hide it and hope that, by the time it’s available, they haven’t missed the bus.

    As for ideas that need some final tweaking, that’s got enormous potential, but also tremendous risk. Depending on how far along the product is, the extent of the suggested changes might not be feasible. Offer your budding community a chance to suggest changes, only to tell them those suggestions are not possible due to the state of the design and you’re going very quickly alienate people.

    I see shades of the old GM merely paying lip service to the demands of the consumer. Their message might announce that the new GM is all about sharing, but if they don’t share anything real, or otherwise ask for input and are either unwilling or unable to act on that input, they stand to show their biggest fans that they aren’t really listening and it’s more of that one-way glass they keep mentioning.

  2. drewpasmith says:

    Hey Brian!

    Thanks for your wonderful input, so eloquently expressed!

    For me, the risk involved is part of the attraction. If the exercise fails through cynicism, a lack of imagination or a reliance on old ways, it’ll just be another nail in the public relations coffin that the New GM risks becoming (230 mpg Volt *cough* whatever *cough*).

    The other thing to bear in mind is that even though the advice given by readers may not be immediately or obviously incorporated into product, the ideas will nevertheless provide valuable food for thought for product being developed away from The Lab.

    Ultimately, it’s a positive step towards more open interactions between automotive companies and their customers and the broader community. It’s not as open as it could be, but hey, they’ve only been at it for a week or so! Only time will tell how authentic an effort The Lab is and ultimately we all get to play the judge.

  3. Ben says:

    Awesome post.

    Thinking about idea of feedback and interaction with Joe (and Jane!) Average being more important than connecting with brand die-hards…

    Can social media let you connect with people who are not already fans of the brand? Why would Joe or Jane, who could care less about cars in general, let alone GM or a particular GM product, follow anyone from GM or a project by GM?

    That is, how do you establish a longer-term deep connection with people who don’t care about you?

    Second, I’m not sure how valuable the feedback this sort of project can be as it’s based on sketches or models. It’s talking to ordinary people in the designers mode, not the other way around.

    GM should be congratulated on the outreach, but I’m wondering how effective it will be.

  4. Brian DR1665 says:

    Glad we’re all in agreement on this one. It’s a step in the right direction, but there will be risks. I only hope that, should they break out the hammer for this final nail, there won’t be more handouts from the government.

    The first step in any would-be successful social media endeavor is sharing. It’s not ROI calculation or bullshit metric like that. It’s sharing. Share what you’re doing and be transparent about it. In time, others will join the community to share as well, leading to the actual realization of synergy.

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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