Mike Robinson: interview with a versatile designer – 1st Part

Mike Robinson

Date of interview: March 3, 2012

Professional Profile: Mike Robinson

Notes: Interview by Artemisa Bega


While thinking about the automotive world in general, and more specifically about the car design world, including communication and the fascinating star system in the industry, I remembered a very special, unique personality that I had the pleasure of interviewing, which produced an unusual and powerful point of view.
The big guy in question is Mike Robinson: a six foot five “Italianized” American designer, today Brand Manager and Design Director at Bertone.

Mike, you are a well-known designer and also Brand Manager of the company where you currently work. How much does communication count in your industry? And above all how much does lack of communication count?
Getting noticed in the great sea of the automotive industry is not a simple thing. Famous names struggle to avoid losing ground while rising stars struggle to enter into potential customers’ radar. In China there are over 100 automobile manufacturers. Let’s see how many can you cite?  I personally know many but there are still many who are complete strangers to me notwithstanding my years of experience there. That’s what communication does: it help companies become part of everyday life of the man on the street. We call this “brand equity” or the intrinsic value of each name, trademark, company, industry.

I read a list of the most powerful individuals in the global automotive industry in a Chinese magazine. I found many designer friends on the list, not necessarily for their contributions to the world design. Some are very deserving in my opinion, some not. The absolute number one was easily Fiat/Chrysler’s Sergio Marchionne, the greatest communicator in the field. If he decides that producing cars in Italy is less efficient than Canada, then he eliminates all the Italian factories without hesitation. And everyone applauds: “Marchionne the Great!” He’s a rock star in the automotive world.
This does not mean however that Fiat or Chrysler will still exist in 50 years (or even 10 years …).

Giant German competitors are reaping profits and market share percentage increases in a depressed market month after month all over the world, while Fiat (along with others such as PSA, Renault, etc.) is sliding constantly downward towards darkness. So communication is important but not enough to make a company powerful.

These “rock star” style generals positions their troops as they sees fit to face the battle, shouting out to the journalists: “Onward to Victory”. Then they watch helplessly as their market shares continue to diminish for lack of ideas and products.

What do you think gives a brand a strong presence in the market, and especially in the imagination of the man-on-the-street?
One of the dilemmas that brands that want to grow face today who is the difference between being known by real customers and be known by the man-on-the-street.

Ask if the man-on-the-street knows Bertone. Some say “no” (unfortunate), others say, “oh yes, they were sold to Fiat” (wrong!). So, in the public’s eyes, we at Bertone have a terrible communication problem, or worse, a misinformation problem. In both cases, the result is negative.
In reality, that none of these people will ever end up on Bertone’s client list, because the company sells sophisticated services in design, engineering and prototyping/modeling aimed at OEM automotive giants around the world.

Therefore we don’t need highly informed “fans” if they aren’t going to buy our services.
The situation gets more serious however, when similar responses come from high level officials in car companies (like Lamborghini for example). It means that they are not informed, or worse, are misinformed, just like the man-on-the-street.
To increase our “brand equity” around the world, we create at least one concept car every year, historically presented at the yearly Geneva Motor Show. As you can well imagine, this requires a huge cost, almost impossible to absorb in annual business profits. In order to achieve a positive ROI for these corporate propaganda efforts we can use different solutions:

a) We can sell the prototype as an exclusive one-off, earning money in addition to recovering the cost of the operation. But selling €2million cars is not like selling a used car on         EBay. You need to use extremely sensitive channels to conclude such million dollar business, often in distant countries with very different cultures.

b) We can try to minimize the expenses for the concept cars and for the exhibitions around the world to try to make the investments easier to recover. But, the less you spend the less the impact will be, and potential customers who expect cutting-edge design from Bertone will be disappointed, meaning the slightly cheaper concept car investment will create negative publicity.

c) We can count the number of articles and specialized magazine covers and quantify them in terms of advertising costs. These numbers often end up around half a million Euros, which helps thus recover some of the concept car investment, but not enough to balance the overall ROI.

d) Finally, we have OEM customers who ask us for permission to produce a concept car.
This is the best form of return on investment. Logically, the more bizarre the concept car is the smaller the chances are it will be selected for possible production.


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You personally surround yourself with people who can significantly enhancement Bertone’s image? Do you feel this is necessary/important?
Bertone is first and foremost a design company, therefore it is obvious that the design activity should contribute most heavily to the corporate image.
My colleagues are all extremely creative designers, and consequently, every time they raise their pencil to produce potential contributions to the centennial history of Bertone I remind them every single day that we are: “Walking in the footsteps of giants.” This means that those who sat at their desks before them designed some of the most beautiful cars in the automotive history under the guidance of the late master, Nuccio Bertone.

I spend a lot of time outside Bertone talking with customers and potential customers. This activity involves loads of personal energy.

Traveling to China can take 28 hours from door to door, then add 6 hour time difference, and multiply all this by one or two trips per month and you get an idea of how much individual effort is involved. Intercontinental flights, hotels and local transport also require significant financial commitments from Bertone, but it must be done because customers need to discuss their projects (or potential projects) directly with the individual who will be producing the expected results. Luckily I have two great chief designers in Bertone who maintain continuity on all projects in the studio during my absence.
This role as corporate “front man” is a big responsibility, and must be done with great seriousness and intensity.

Often the decision to outsource a major project to a specific design service company or another depends directly on these trips, these meetings. The money we earn comes from our ability to convince customers to invest in us and not in our competitors. Often clients choose both, creating a design competition with two, three, even five different companies, where the best proposal wins the contract.
At this point, our CEO looks straight into my eyes and says: “We are going to win this time too, right Mike?” Therefore every design competition becomes a “must win” situation for me. For this reason, my team spends long hours in the company (including many pizza nights and weekends) to make sure our results are the highest level possible in order to first of all win every design competition, then put those beautiful designs into production, increasing sales figures for our client.

 …the second and the third part!

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