RELAUNCH: HOW TO STAGE AN ORGANIZATIONAL COMEBACK
by Dr. Mark Rutland
The demise of Oldsmobile is a textbook example of a company getting ahead of itself and changing its message before it had a new market to align with the new message. Management at Oldsmobile realized that it had a specific market that wanted a specific kind of car. For decades they had been convinced that there would always be people who wanted Oldsmobiles, and that those people would always want Oldsmobiles to look like Oldsmobiles. They did quite well with that market. The problem was that they were securing a growing share of a shrinking market. The people who wanted Oldsmobiles were elderly, and they were dying. Young people didn't want Oldsmobiles.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Oldsmobile hired an advertising agency to create a last-gasp, hail-Mary campaign to
try to reach the younger car buyers who could give new life to the brand. The ad agency came up with quite a memorable slogan: This is not your father's Oldsmobile. It turned out to be the nail in the coffin for the Oldsmobile brand. Oldsmobile's existing market said, "Not my father's Oldsmobile? But my father's Oldsmobile was what I wanted; it's what I've always had. I'm seventy-seven years old. If it doesn't look like an Oldsmobile, I don't want it." More to the point, that existing market had been looking for an excuse to break with tradition and buy a Cadillac anyway. It was Cadillac that benefited most from the not your father's Oldsmobile campaign.
Meanwhile, the young car buyers who were the target of the campaign looked at the new Oldsmonbiles and said, "It sure looks to me like my father's Oldsmobile." The misleading advertising lost Oldsmobile its existing market without winning it a new market. That was 1988. Oldsmobile hung on another twelve years, finally shutting down in the year 2000. But not your father's Oldsmobile was the beginning of the end. All because Oldsmobile had let its message get ahead of its market.