Susan Docherty, general manager for Buick/GMC, spent a lot of time last year hanging out in people's garages -- incognito -- and getting some straight talk from the owners of other companies' cars.
"People who I interviewed didn't know who I was. I went in there with no identification, in my blue jeans, T-shirt and my hair in ponytails.
"If they had known who I was, their answers may have been different. If they don't know what company you're from, you get very candid feedback," she said.
And candid it was -- painfully candid at times.
"I would be lying to you if I didn't tell you that there were times when I had to gulp really hard. You get the good, the bad and the ugly about what people think about your product. But believe me, I did lots of listening. And we really need to do that."
The team developing Buick products for the "New GM" had chosen to hang out around 20 garages belonging to owners of Acura TL and Lexus ES 350 luxury cars to gather information for use in developing the Buick LaCrosse, a luxury sedan loaded with extras. The Lexus and Acura markets are targets for the new LaCrosse.
The market research process known internally at GM as "garage visits" is an example of a type of ethnography that has proven fruitful. It also was used by Chevrolet in developing the new Malibu, one of the most successful cars in years for General Motors.
"At GM, we've always had tons and tons of data, but we really needed to gain insights. We needed to get a lot closer to our target customers, and we didn't need to go into bankruptcy to figure that out," Ms. Docherty said.
What they did between September 2008 and February 2009, she said, was gain insight on what owners liked and didn't like about their vehicles, how they used it and where they put stuff in it. And they learned what the owners thought could be done better.
She learned sitting in all those garages, and in all those competitors' cars, that Buick as a brand was quite well known but people were fuzzy about its characteristics. Even consumers who had positive things to say, often added, "but it's not for me," she said.
She also discovered that if the company wanted to attract younger, more affluent customers, it had to become more technology-savvy.
"It's what I call personal technology. And for people in their 40s and 50s driving imported luxury sedans, it's not just a want -- it's a need," she said, referring to such things as blind spot warning systems, touch-screen navigation systems and electric rear window shades.
She thinks the research is paying off.
"People are now saying about the technology on the LaCrosse, 'Hey, I didn't think that Buick would have that,'" she said. "They aren't saying they're ready to go out and buy a Buick, but they are saying, 'I'll look at Buicks now.'"
Don Hammonds can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1538.