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"Becoming American" Interview with Shirley Young
BILL MOYERS: Well, what was the difference? With attitudinal research, what were you looking for when you went after people's attitudes?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: [We used] focus groups, quantitative research, polling. Do people approve of Bush's approach? Are people in favor of the war on Iraq, et cetera, or even how to position themselves on economics or on welfare or on Medicare. Well, that's what we were doing about products.
BILL MOYERS: But before anybody else had done it?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: That's exactly right. And so, that became a really compelling advantage that we had. And so, I really did that for quite a long time with these companies. One of the places where we did was the automotive industry, interestingly because I was fascinated by that. And we had this chance, suddenly, to work, for the Ford Motor Company. And they had a product called Pinto, which was the first small car so that was a very big piece of news because as the American manufacturers had really only had middle and large cars. So, with great effort they were going to introduce this small car.
And the way it was introduced probably was the way the people in Detroit thought about it, which was kind of like a fun toy car. That's why it was called Pinto, like a little horse. And the way that they advertised it and presented it to the world was this little frisky colt dancing around. They said, "Oh, this car is going to be fun to drive and this is the new Pinto." Well, the car was very unsuccessful. And so they came to talk to us. And then we did research.
And what we found out was is that while the auto people might have thought this is a cute, fun little car to the person, for the person who was going to buy a car at that price range, which I remember was $2,995, it was gonna be their only mode of transportation. They were looking for something reliable, with good fuel economy so they could afford it, take them to and from work and to all the important things they had to do.
And so this was not a fun car; this is a serious, basic, important functional product. So, what they were looking for was dependability, reliability, et cetera.
And so we completely changed the position from being this toy fun thing to a campaign that said, "When you get back to basics, you get back to Ford." And it was about how the old model T was reliable and dependable, economical, et cetera. And repositioned this is as a serious but high quality small car.
And it became an enormous success and sold ultimately over a million vehicles. So that was the big turning point and that was how we actually discovered that [we should be] going to the customer, finding out how they viewed it. Not how did the expert view it.
BILL MOYERS: You also made some breakthroughs in the study of branding, why people bought this brand and that brand, is that right?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, what that was about was to really understand what makes a brand a brand. Now, today it's very fashionable. Everybody wants to be about brand. I'm sure that your show wants to be a brand, okay? And everybody talks about preserving the brand, protecting the brand.
But at the time people were not so clear and people used to take a given brand and then want to change it completely. I remember a very funny little incident which is about brand equity, and I remember I used to give this as an example.
You remember the Oak room at the Plaza? We always used to say, "Well, what's the product like?" Well, that's the way it looks and the food it serves, et cetera. And then how is it positioned? Well, it's upscale and towards prestigious people. And then what's the personality? Basically conservative. So, those are the three Pís: product, positioning and personality.
If you thought about it that way you would understand exactly what that Oak room was. Well, at some point, they decided they needed to upgrade, modernize. And they made it into this pink and green tulips and stuff like that. And of course it completely destroyed the brand equity it had and tried to be something completely different in trying to be modern. And it was a total failure. Now they've gone back ever since to the Oak room.
But that was the understanding of what brands are and that if you thought of a brand as a friend that you could trust, that's what a brand was. So, it was just really looking at what brands mean and then how to think about it and then how to understand what is that equity. So, yes you want to update but you don't want to lose what you've got.
BILL MOYERS: You may have invented the concept of branding.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: No. We invented the term brand character which was to say is like the character of a person. You can change your job, you can change your status in life. You can become rich or poor but your character doesn't change.
It's the same thing with brands. Brands can change their package and maybe change their ingredients. I mean, obviously we all look now in marketing history and look at Coca Cola. When Coca Cola decided to change itself in terms of the product, it destroyed its equity. And so the consumers revolted and it had to go back to its brand equity./p>
BILL MOYERS: Were you recognized for your work at Gray?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I think so. Maybe not me individually but we had a whole department and it became the Gray Advertising thing where we made our point of difference to out potential clients or potential customers.
BILL MOYERS: And you got to be number two in the department, didn't you?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Oh, no. No, no. I got to be number one. But that's an interesting story. Because you see people ask me, "Well, did you suffer discrimination as a woman, as an Asian, et cetera." Well, my sister and I say, "We were kind of oblivious." We grew up in a family where we had all kinds of important people coming through our house: prime ministers and ambassadors and all kinds of people.
And my parents always gave us the feeling that we could sit at the dinner table [with them]. We could talk to anybody. And some people were very rich or very powerful and we didn't like them. And some people were very humble but we like them. And my parents always treated them that way.
And subsequently my mother married Wellington Koo who was a great diplomat and great figure in China's foreign affairs and China's history. But he took that kind of approach as well.
So, when we went into business, I always felt it didn't matter what the people were like. Therefore I didn't expect discrimination. I didn't go in feeling, "Oh, I bet I'm gonna be discriminated against."
Except one day I got a telephone call from one of the officers at Gray, one of the vice presidents. He said, "Shirley." He said, "I just recommended you to be the agency's representative at some association. And I told them that if you weren't a woman you'd be the head of the department." I had never thought that was the reason I wasn't the head of the department.
Actually when the head of the department had gotten promoted, they brought in a new head of the department. After nine months it didn't work out. We had another head of the department. So, we had had probably three or four--
BILL MOYERS: All white guys?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Oh, yes. But it never occurred to me that I was being discriminated against. I always thought, "Well, I'm probably not good enough yet. That's why they keep on bringing these other people with all these very impressive resumes." But when he said that to me on the phone I was stunned. And he meant it as a compliment to me. (LAUGHTER)
So, then I decided there is discrimination. I guess I better leave pretty soon. So, I did leave for a while. But they were very smart because when I left I went to join my husband in a small start up company. And so because it wasn't competitive at the agency my boss, the one who had gotten promoted, said, "Well, we'll still keep in touch with you. And we'll give you in fact a small stipend because we'd like to call you periodically and ask you some questions still." So, I still had a connection with the company.
And about a year and a half later he called me to have lunch. He said, "Shirley," he says, "I hate to say this. It's taken us a long time to understand this. But we've decided you'd be the best head of the department." So, I came back as the head of the department.>
BILL MOYERS: Why didn't it occur to you to nominate yourself at some point?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Oh, I don't know. Maybe that's my Asian upbringing. I just didn't think that I should be so arrogant, self centered, whatever, that I probably wasn't good enough. I just assumed that.
BILL MOYERS: -- your culture said, "You don't brag--"
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yeah, not particularly. I mean, I would volunteer for things. For example, I decided, "Gee, it makes sense to speak publicly in associations and stuff because that's the way you-- " So, I was career oriented and took initiative. I was proactive because nobody told me I had to do it or I didn't think I couldn't do it. So, I did it.
And that was very helpful so I started to have a reputation. But it never occurred to me when I wasn't promoted that there was some reason that I was being held back. I don't know, it just never occurred to me.
BILL MOYERS: General Motors brought you over to a top position there to sell more cars and what else?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: To help understand the consumer better. They had a new board member named John Smail who was the head of Proctor and Gamble, who had joined GM as a board member. And of course Proctor and Gamble is a great marketing company.
And so one of the top executives at General Motors, Howard Kurl (PH), who was the vice chairman, who I was on the board with at Dayton Hudson. We used to chat on the way to the airport and back. And because I knew something about the auto industry 'cause we handled auto clients, Ford among them, et cetera-- we used to just chat about what was happening in the business.
And he said, "Our board tells us that we don't know enough about marketing. They keep on pushing us. We gotta improve our marketing. So, who would you recommend that we should bring on " I said, "You could bring in God and he couldn't do it. You've got 750,000 people in this company. No one person can make this company into a superior marketing [department]."
So, he said, "Well, what do you think we should do?" I said, "You gotta start from inside. And the way to do that is why don't you get all your executives, engineers, financial people, all the people who are powerful in the company and have a marketing conference and talk about what other companies have done and how important it is and understanding the consumer and how it can help you succeed." [He thought it was] a pretty good idea. He said, "I'll call you back."
So, he went back and he talked to his marketing vice president who told him it was the worst idea he ever heard (LAUGHING). But he's a stubborn man. He was vice chairman. He said, "They told me it's the worst idea they ever heard. But I'm gonna go ahead and do it, so help me plan this thing."
So, I said, "Look, I can't. I mean, I'll tell you some people you should invite who are great marketers and I'll be one of your speakers. But, that's about it." So then subsequently they did have this conference and I went to speak there. First of all, all the people who were in the advertising agencies of the company, because I came from Gray Advertising, thought I was gonna steal their business. So, there was a huge amount of suspicion and hostility from that.
Secondly, all these people who were engineers, financial people at that time thought, "Why are we going to a conference for marketing?" That was like not serious stuff. The serious stuff was product and engineering and finance. And marketing was like all this nonsense stuff you just push it out there.
BILL MOYERS: If you make it, they'll come.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Right. I remember it started at lunchtime. There was this cocktail party at the beginning, kind of a reception they had. So, I walked in. Well, the first thing was I had never seen General Motors people in my life except Howard Kurl who I was on the board. But there were all these-- as I said all in gray suits. Most of them with gray hair. All men of course.
And secondly there was clearly not a welcoming attitude. In fact Howard Kurl was very nice. He was on one side of me and there was a very innovative guy who was the head of the research labs at the research tech center.
So, the two of them were like my body guards. And we walked in and I said, "If looks could have killed I would have been dead." Because as I walked into this-- you just could feel the hostility, suspicion, what the hell is she doing here, et cetera.
So, anyway, I subsequently did my thing, gave my speech. And, the company at the time was a very insular company. They did things their own way. And this was the first time they had [opened up]. They didn't only have me, they had the president of Holiday Inn, they had a lot of other marketing people who came and talked.
And this was like the first time I think had ever been exposed to all these people, especially about marketing 'cause that was not a high priority in that company at the time. So I think that their ability to even change was a great credit to the management because the management including Roger Smith and others-- I'm sure that the board helped to encourage it. But I think they were very daring to say, "Gee, we better do something about this and maybe we should get some outside people."
BILL MOYERS: They wanted you to understand the consumer for what purposes? To sell cars obviously?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yes, of course to sell cars, to understand better, to market better, position their brands better. That was the time of that famous FORTUNE MAGAZINE cover which showed five different vehicles, all with different brands, Pontiac, Chevrolet, et cetera. And they all looked alike and it was about the look alike cars and how General Motors in their rush to downsize cars had made all their brands the same and lost the distinction between them.
So, there was a tremendous amount of criticism of the company at the time. So, the purpose was to get brand orientation into the company.
BILL MOYERS: But didn't they also want you to help their own employees understand that they were producing quality cars to help attitudes within the company, not just the public's attitude toward the company?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, I think it started by asking what's important to the customer. That was what they were really looking for. And then yes, quality. They had lots of, measurements about what makes good quality.
I don't think that was the problem. It was that they were not going towards what the market wanted. First of all, they didn't believe in research. They viewed people like JD Powers, who brought in bad news about them, they viewed them as hostile like, let's kill the messengers kind of thing.
And the people who would present research about a product clinic that showed that people didn't like this new model, nobody would believe it. They'd get very upset with the person who was presenting the results.
So, there was this whole period, it fortunately has now passed, where the company was convinced [it could tell the customers what to buy]. I guess in fashion Dior will tell them what length the ladies skirts should be, and they will wear them. Well, I will tell them what they're gonna want in their car and they will like it. They may not like it now but they will when it comes out.
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