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Fixing GM and the Big Three: What Would Steve Jobs Do?

What would Steve Jobs do to save GM? And why isn’t the US government asking the man that totally turned around a company that literally everyone thought was dead and turned it into an American icon of global corporate success?

The other day I came across this article that flirted with ideas that were already circulating in my head for some time. What if Steve Jobs and Jonny Ive (Apple’s famed industrial designer) got their hands on car design? What if Apple was involved in a joint project? And what — given our now very troubling situation with the Big Three in Detroit — would Jobs do if asked for his opinion on how to fix GM in particular…what might he do? 

Steve Jobs’ Answer

There are many ways to look at this. Judging from the way Jobs took hold of Apple in 1997 when he came back to save the company we could certainly assume that Jobs would slash product lines very dramatically. But there is another answer that precedes that.
Steve Jobs stands for innovation, true innovation. Jobs also stands for originality, independent thinking and a complete passion for the energy he puts behind his company and its products. From this perspective one could reasonably assume that Steve Jobs would just say screw the Big Three, they all fail on the merits for which he lives and breaths. And I think those who think they know Jobs would be none too surprised by such a judgement. 
However, if the governement said, “Steve, we’ve made a decision that Detroit is a critical piece of our country’s future, we are going to save these companies to some degree, but we want you to tell us what you would do, if you were in complete control of the situation.”

The Apple 2.0 Template

Here’s what I think Steve might do. On a certain level he would apply the same type of thinking he applied to Apple and Pixar. We might refer to this as the Apple 2.0 template. So what did Steve do back in 1997? 

Firstly he started from scratch. He launched a totally ground-breaking “save the company” initiative called the iMac. It was a small team, it was highly secretive and he went at it much like he did with the first Mac project. What GM must really do, Steve might argue, is completely focus on building that one car that will utterly captivate the car industry and the world at large. And this car would need to be a game changer. Nothing less is worth even considering. That is what Steve did with the iMac project.

Second, Steve would want to re-establish what GM stands for and what the various brands mean. In other words, the “Think different” campaign but his time for GM and the brands it would keep. This might be the most difficult part of the entire application of the Apple 2.0 Template to GM. What the heck does GM stand for anyway?

In reviewing GM’s many brands Jobs might come to what is an obvious conclusion for many but to so few within GM itself: kill more than half the brands. And kill them today. 

What Steve did with Apple in 1997 was nothing short of breathtaking. The sub-brands, the products lines and technologies he killed included things that many thought just didn’t make sense to kill. They still seemed promising. Yet he killed them or put them on ice nonetheless. He terminated, for example, the Newton MessagePad, a handheld computing platform that seemed promising at the time. He wiped out entire product lines and eliminated a mix-mash series of Mac products by boiling down all computers into his now famous four-product matrix. 

What would a four product matrix look like for GM?

Heck, let’s make it easier. What would a six or eight product matrix look like for GM?

While it is totally unclear to many whether or not a government bailout of GM and the other Big Three truly makes sense for the US, what does make sense — at least to me — is that the government could certainly benefit from a Jobsian approach and understanding of the problem. So perhaps they should ask the man himself. 

“Steve, what would you do to save GM…or would you?”

Reader Comments

  1. Posted by:
    November 19, 2008 11:40 pm EST

    I think Jobs would do four major things. First, focus on condensing the product line. All three companies have too many models. Many seem very similar with one another. The companies need to focus on a few things and do them well. Second, he would try to do away with car dealerships and bring this in house. Currently, the Big Three have to many dealerships, and they have to share profit with everyone of those independent dealers. That alone would go a long way to making the companies profitable. Third, Jobs would focus on design. Currently, it is hard to tell the difference between various cars because for the most part they all make cars that look the same. More importantly he’d focus on identifying shortcomings in the designs and correcting those. Fourth, he’d fix the boring bland commercials. The only thing I have seen remotely innovative in car ads are the newer Brooke Shield Volkswagen ads. You have to make American cars sexy again.

  2. Posted by:
    November 19, 2008 11:46 pm EST


    The big three are not asking to be bailed out any more then I was asking my mortgage company to bail me out when I took out a mortgage to buy my house or when I bought my car on credit. They are asking for a loan. The government makes interest on the loan, and has the added benefit of not having to pay all the employee government unemployment and social service benefits when people lose their jobs in the millions.

    Good thing Ford, GM, and Chrysler didn’t tell the government to take a hike and build their own military equipment in World War II. Otherwise, we’d all being speaking German today.

  3. I haven’t seen the Brooke Shield ads for VW yet but I have put some thought into GM for well over two years. I actually think they should completely reconfigure their branding strategy to strategically align their car brands towards clarity of focus and meaning. Every brand needs both “direction” (the brand’s meaning says a lot about what they would likely do in the future) and “heritage.”

    The brands that speak with clarity about “direction” and “heritage” are: Hummer, Cadillac, and Saab, in that order. Hummer is the most poignant brand but its brand direction points in the wrong direction when it comes to the environment. Cadillac’s “big luxury” message is similarly troubling on a lighter scale. Saab has a remarkable brand heritage that is, unfortunately, just completely lost on most Americans. However, they have the best brand direction when it comes to the environment.

    If someone made me King of GM I would do something quite radical. I would great a Corvette brand and separate it from Chevy and align it with the premium group (Hummer, Cadi and Saab). I would keep Chevy and model it around Toyota and Honda.

    GMC, Buick, Pontiac and Saturn would all be killed.

  4. Okay, I always get a kick out of folks making hay over an article that I published that got far fewer attention. It looks as though Robert X. Cringley of got wind of my commentary above and wrote his own about Steve Jobs running one of the Big Three. has a summary here:

    But the main Cringley piece is here:

    It’s an interesting read but the gist is do what Steve did to Apple in 97′ and GM would be fine. I simply refer to it as the Apple 2.0 Template. And for once I actually agree with Robert! It would likely work…but only if Steve was really doing it.

  5. […] als ich plötzlich Reisen neuer Veranstalter in seinen Katalogen sah. Daruf flog ich postwendend in WWSJ-Manier nach Hamburg und kettete mich dort so lange bei Tchibo ans Treppengeländer, bis ich einen […]

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