• U.S.

MOTORS: Thought-Starter

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Henry Woodfin Grady, eloquent editor of the Atlanta Constitution in the 1880s, was the first great promoter of an “industrial South.” Day after death cut short his campaign at 39—December 23, 1889—a boy was born to the poor but genteel Weaver family in Eatonton, Ga. Like many another Southern family, they named their child Henry Grady. Today Promoter Henry Woodfin Grady’s vision of an industrial South is finally approaching reality and Henry Grady Weaver is chief promoter of a new industrial concept. He is head of the Customer Research Staff of General Motors Corp.

Customer (or market) research is a technique of consulting the buyer on his tastes before making a product. In “Buck” Weaver’s words, it is “finding out what people like, doing more of it, finding out what people don’t like, doing less of it.” A logical operating philosophy, it is nonetheless given scant consideration by U. S. industry. Most businesses rely solely on dealers, advertising agents and only occasional surveys to keep apprised of public preference.

Fortnight ago Frank R. Coutant, director of research for the advertising agency of Pedlar & Ryan, Inc., estimated that even though use of market research has jumped 50% in the last three years, U. S. industry is spending a mere $4,500,000 a year for it. (Estimated expenditure for engineering research: $300,000,000.) Only a handful of the biggest U. S. companies indulge in market research to an appreciable extent* and of these General Motors makes the biggest splash, spending something less than $500,000 a year for the purpose.

Elsewhere in the No. 1 U. S. industry, Ford depends almost entirely on its dealers’ reports on consumer tastes. Chrysler’s Head Statistician John Scoville spends most of his time studying registration tabulations, dealer suggestions and sales records, checks his findings with occasional direct surveys of buyer opinion. General Motors alone carries on constant customer research in the full sense of the word.

This week both the simple and elaborate methods of rival motormakers in gauging public opinion take their annual road-test at the 1939 Automobile Show in Manhattan. The 200 glittering, four-wheeled debutantes now arrayed in Grand Central Palace and soon to appear in 30 other shows throughout the U. S. have many a new selling-point, gadget, mechanical feature (see p. 77). The numerous changes in this year’s cars are striking evidence of the motor industry’s urge to give the public exactly what it wants. In the creation of some of the new car features customer research played a large role; others are the exclusive brainchildren of cloistered designers.

185 Changes. GM began customer research during the teapot tempest over freewheeling. Every executive in the industry had positive ideas on the subject; Buck Weaver, then on Alfred P. Sloan’s personal public relations staff, wondered what the public thought. On his own he sent a questionnaire to a few hundred automobile owners. Some 60% voted for freewheeling. Then a few months later a second questionnaire showed that only 50% wanted it on their cars. GM abandoned freewheeling. It still took Weaver some time to persuade the company that a regular customer research department was warranted. Allowed to try it for GM’s Canadian affiliate, he got results so successful that in 1933 customer research was extended to the entire company.

Since then Weaver has sent out 15,000,000 questionnaires, made an average of a speech a week, carried on an enormous correspondence and built up a formidable battery of charts and files. From it all he and his staff of 37 have winnowed exactly 185 public reactions which have found their way into the design of GM cars. Researcher Weaver carefully points out that he was not completely responsible for any of these changes; most of them were already contemplated by GM engineers. But the fact that the public wanted them was often the deciding factor in their adoption.

In line with Weaver’s findings—though in some cases ”discovered” independently by other manufacturers using more prosaic methods—are such changes on GM’s new cars as lower centre of gravity, improved visibility, partial elimination of running boards, gear shift lever on steering post, door locks on both front doors in some models, locks on ventipanes. Most 1939 cars have the headlights submerged in the fenders; GM’s still have their lights mounted independently. Other Weaver conclusions about the public:

> 96.4% favor an all steel top.

> 87.2% favor headlight dimmer button on floor board.

> 65.8% favor automatic choke.

> 90.9% favor streamlining.

> 33.9% favor a black car, 19.3% gray, 19.2% blue.

> 70.6% favor a flat rear floor.

> 92.7% favor hydraulic brakes.

> 74.3% want car-radios.

> In buying cars during the last four years, John Public thought it considered most important in order of preference: dependability, safety, operating economy, comfort, appearance, smoothness, ease of control, pickup, speed, first cost.

Wave-Lengths. Buck Weaver likes to remark. “For years businessmen have used the expression ‘The customer is always right,’ but it never occurred to any one to try to find out what it was that the customer was right about. . . .”

Weaver’s staff annually invites 3,000,000 motorists—located in all sections of the U. S. and owners of all makes of cars—”to pool their practical experience with the technical skill of General Motors’ engineers and production experts.” These “invitations,” generally in the form of illustrated questionnaires and booklets, are sent to lists of the rank & file public, of which a minimum of 25% invariably reply, and to a special Weaver list of 100,000 motor enthusiasts, of whom as many as 90% will reply. On the average, Weaver manages to get answers to about two-thirds of his 3,000,000 “invitations.” Passing on what he learns to his superiors, he is wont to remark: “2,000,000 opinions make a fact.”

This high average of returns is one of Weaver’s notable achievements. Working on a limited budget, he early decided that he could not compete with the elaborate offerings of direct mail advertisers. Instead, he makes his booklets chaste and subdued, thus getting his message heard, says he, much as a short-wave radio station competes with WJZ—i.e., by using a different wavelength.

To check on the appeal of his booklets, Weaver likes to toss one in the gutter outside the General Motors Building in Detroit. Then he peers from a doorway, counting the passers until someone picks it up. If 100 pass without stopping, the design is a failure; if only 34 go by, it is a sure success.

Weaver’s booklets are generally small, black-covered, generously illustrated by drawings, many of which he swipes from magazine advertisements and alters to his purpose, thus saving money. A student of typefaces, he sometimes uses 40 in a single booklet. His favorite is New Pica typewriter type, very simple. One way or another he makes his questionnaires as interesting as a game. At first, in fact, recipients were so pleased with them that they would not return them. Weaver solved this by sending them out in duplicate, letting the customer keep one, fill in the other. Other discoveries: a footnote gets more attention than a headline; sometimes a messy carbon of a letter will pull more replies than the original.

At Automobile Showtime, Weaver puts on a special drive to gauge the public’s reaction to the new models. Last week, for example, many a New Yorker got free tickets to the Manhattan show on the condition that he fill in a style ballot. Weaver will also muster some of his motor enthusiasts for a personally conducted tour of the show. This week, too. Weaver’s biggest customer research opus makes its debut—a slick, 80-page Motorist’s Handbook and Buyer’s Guide to be distributed to 5,000,000 customers to tell them what they have told GM about their taste in automobiles.

Propaganda. The Motorist’s Handbook demonstrates that GM’s customer research is not merely a fact-finding project. It is also a highly polished sales and propaganda device. And there is no question that the selling aspects of Weaver’s activities are fully as valuable to GM as the research findings.

The barrage of entertaining booklets make readers friendly toward GM by asking their advice. An important contribution to GM merchandising was Weaver’s finding out how customers like to have their cars serviced passing the information on to GM dealers. Many of his mailings have been planned not so much to get information as to sell cars by stirring up interest in a laggard territory.

All this, Buck Weaver stoutly maintains, does not impair the scientific value of his findings. Some other market research experts disagree: and though they give him credit for doing more to popularize market research than anyone else, they declare that he could find out just as much without as much fuss.

Weaver’s own answer to such criticism is that his type of customer research must not be regarded merely as a functional activity, but as an operating philosophy which pervades every GM activity. He likes to regard himself as a symbol of a growing trend in Big Business to consider every corporate action, no matter how trivial, from the point of view of how it affects the public. Under this theory public relations becomes an integral part of any manufacturing function, even research. GM baldly admits this: though Henry Weaver’s boss is Richard H. Grant, vice president in Charge of Sales, his expenses are borne by the Public Relations department headed by Paul Garrett. And GM customer research, heretofore limited to questions upon customer preferences, is likely soon to begin asking questions on labor, taxes, salaries.

Idea Man. Henry Weaver at 48 has been in the automobile business ever since he got out of Georgia Tech in 1911, returned to Eatonton to run a garage. Presently he became a mechanic in Detroit’s early motor companies, got fired with monotonous regularity until he branched into sales. He did a turn as draftsman with Haynes Automobile Co., lost some money but learned how to be an executive in the short-lived Sun Motor Car Co., finally hitched his trailer to a star in 1918 by joining Hyatt Roller Bearing Co. then headed by Alfred P. Sloan Jr.* When Hyatt was taken over by GM, Weaver was put to work on sales statistics and market analyses. In 1925 he won a Harvard Award for Market Research for a study of quantitative markets.

Now he is GM’s psychology king, available for ideas on any subject. Though he met some opposition at first, he put over himself and his ideas with the same technique he uses on the public—a steady flow of booklets, memos and “Thought Starters” (little Aesop-like homilies pointing up sound sales morals) circulated within the organization. Pretty far down the line on GM’s organizational chart, Buck Weaver gets only about $20,000 a year salary.

Arriving at the GM Building about nine, Weaver lopes down the long corridor with a mess of manila folders under his arm, a cigaret stub in his nervous mouth. To preserve his more-or-less professorial role in a high-pressure company, he dresses with studied informality—slouch hat, tweedy, sloppy suit. He is short, bowlegged, has Clark Gable ears and hair cropped short because it tends to be kinky.

Jittery as a terrier, he cannot sit still, swivels between two desks, hops up to flip some papers, peers through a cloud of smoke with his one good eye (he has been blind in his right eye since birth). Likable and expansive, he talks incessantly, wrinkles his nose when amused, which is often. Though his job is listening to the public, he is a poor listener personally. Visitors have a hard time getting a word in edgewise but rarely mind because the Weaver conversation is equipped not only with a store of fresh ideas but with an incredible volume of Negro stories which he tells in a nasal Georgia drawl.

In order to keep his creative faculties unsullied by routine, Weaver leaves management of his cluttered office to two young assistants—La Verne N. Laseau and A. Marsden Thompson. Rather a diligent extrovert in his writings, he assumes such pen-names as Fargan Hathway, makes a point of quoting Baltasar y Morales Gracián, a 17th Century Spanish Jesuit. Buck Weaver’s screwiest activities are occasional booklets he prints at his own expense. He justifies them as outlets for his inhibitions, as surface rashes on his emotional ego. Sample paragraph based on Olive Schreiner story of the “Hunter:”

“But where I lie down, worn out, other men will stand, young and fresh. By the steps I have cut will they climb; by the stairs I have built will they mount. They will never know the name of the man who made them. At my clumsy work they will laugh; when the stones tumble down upon them they will curse me. But they will mount, and on MY work; they will climb, and by MY stair! They will find her [truth], AND THROUGH ME!”

*Important corporate users of market research: Procter & Gamble Co.; Lever Bros.; Eastman Kodak Co.; General Foods Corp.; Du Pont; Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.; American Telephone & Telegraph; General Electric Co.; Coca-Cola Co.; Standard Oil of Indiana; Swift & Co.; Bristol-Myers Co. Among important U. S. market researchers: A. C. Nielsen Co.; Percival White and Pauline Arnold of Market Research Corp. of America; Ross Federal Research Corp.; Archibald M. Crossley of Crossley, Inc.: Paul Terry Cherington; George Gallup; Daniel Starch; Henry Charles Link of the Psychological Corp.; McKinsey, Wellington & Co.; Paul Lazarsfeld; Elmo Roper (FORTUNE Surveys); Barrington Associates; C. E. Hooper Inc.; Ford, Bacon & Davis; Facts Inc.

*At Hyatt he got his nickname Buck after the baseball player named Buck Weaver who with seven others was involved in a national scandal over the selling out of the 1919 World Series.

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