Lightning does not strike twice, but thrice in the automobile industry. Over the past four decades, the automobile industry has been faced on three different occasions with consumer demand misaligned from automaker’s supply. Lessons from the first incident, in 1973, should have thwarted similar fallout from future situations. A short attention span, narrow focused direction, and greed are all responsible for the automobile industry’s inability to proactively produce automobiles that address the concerns of today’s consumer.
Making Decisions Without an Ear to the Ground
For whatever reason, the automotive industry seems to have a history of making decisions in a vacuum. The general public is sensitive to the aggressive increases in fuel prices, and yet the manufacturers produce automobiles with very low MPG ratings. The motive in the past, according to Paul MacDuffie in his 2008 Knowledge@Wharton article, was the irresistible profit margins on light trucks. Does greed continue to be the driving force behind the automobile industry’s selective hearing? One of the biggest mistakes any industry can make is to not listen to the consumer. With a deaf ear, the automobile industry repeated their mistakes again in the 1980s.
To combat the fuel shortage in the 1970s, auto manufacturers shifted to unleaded fuel, catalytic converters, and a recalculation of horsepower ratings (De Lorenzo, 2008). Of course, this did nothing for the actual rising costs of fuel. It did, however, mask certain sensitive issues such as MPG rating. As a result, consumers continued to purchase gas-guzzling automobiles. In the 1980s, automobile manufacturers perceived the fuel shortage as a temporary problem. They predicted that an aggressive drop in fuel prices would follow the shortage—and it did.
In 2005, Fox News reported that the latest fuel shortage would finally force the automobile industry to start developing fuel-efficient vehicles (2005). After surviving the affects of two previous shortages, the automobile industry felt confident that this too would pass. When the prices exceeded everyone’s predictions, analysts began to make predictions regarding the consumer’s tolerance. Automobile manufacturers were banking on the fact that Americans would probably pay nearly six dollars per gallon before giving up their sport utility vehicles. Fuel prices in Europe are nearly twice as much as in the United States.
The automakers gambled on the fact that the consumers would bounce back from the impact of high fuel costs and continue to purchase SUVs. One big mistake was to incubate the impression that the automobile industry is more interested in a profit than the economic welfare of the public. The lack of marketing research—an ear to the ground—during these times of crisis would have helped the automobile manufacturers develop products to combat the fuel shortages.
With the most recent fuel shortage, the automobile industry faced preemptive criticism. The consumers seemed to take the proactive role and demand better fuel economy. Avoiding a black eye, the automakers introduced several new hybrid and fuel cell model vehicles. The market conditions have changed. The industry is driven by the wants, needs, and concerns of the consumers as opposed to the arrogance of the industry. Pressure from several fronts has forced automakers to shift their focus.
As with any plan to change corporate direction, a formal strategy is necessary (Cateora & Graham, 2007). Automobile manufacturers can ensure success by conducting marketing research to determine the best array of products for the current consumer. Post-sales surveys are important to help fine tune the marketing mix. The most important tactic the automobile industry could add to their latest strategy is to become more sensitive to the concerns of society. Be a partner to the consumer and a friend to the environment.
The automobile is not entirely at fault. Without a demand for the gas-guzzling SUVs, automobile manufacturers would have no reason to produce them. The automobile industry could claim that they were simply satisfying the demands of the consumer, and it is the consumer that is thumbing their noses at rising fuel costs. While this may be true, it is the automobile industry that has thumbed its nose at the environment by not driving efforts and steering the public into environmentally friendly automobiles—until now.
The automobile industry is no longer behind the curve. Manufacturers are tuned into the pulse of the consumer. This is not the result of learning from their mistakes, or even proactively anticipating the financial burden of rising fuel costs. The automobile manufacturers realized that the consumers are demanding less dependency on fossil fuels. Moreover, automobile manufacturers have grown a conscience regarding the impact of internal combustion engines to our environment. And while an ounce of prevention can save a gallon of gasoline, an ounce of forward thinking can save a planet.
Cateora, P. & Graham, J. (2007). International marketing. New York: McGraw-Hill Irwin.
De Lorenzo, P. (2008). Rants #427 – Autoextremist ~ the bare-knuckled, unvarnished, high-octane truth. Retrieved July 12, 2010 from http://www.autoextremist.com/current/2008/1/13/rants-427.html
FoxNews.com (2005). High gas prices changing auto market. Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,170297,00.html
Knowledge@Wharton (2008) Behind the curve: Have U.S. automakers built the wrong cars at the wrong time—again? Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/articles.cfm?articleid=2012