Last week, Lotus CEO Dany Bahar explained how the Proton-owned automaker is increasing the size of its cars in a new, polarizing mass-market strategy. It was, as expected, met with contempt by Lotus fan-boys. Now, Lotus responds.
First, some background to answer criticism elsewhere about what happened. We originally had an interview set up with former GM Vice-Chairman and current Lotus board advisor Bob Lutz on Wednesday afternoon at the LA Auto Show. When Justin Hyde, my features editor, showed up for the interview, we were told "Maximum" Bob had left the building early and we weren't going to be able to interview him. Sadly, we accepted an interview with Lotus CEO Dany Bahar instead for 11:00 AM the next day.
Early the next day, Justin and I decide I would go over and tell Kevin Smith, Lotus U.S. PR man, that we weren't going to do the interview. We'd planned on talking to Lutz about what it was like to be a car guy working for the newer, plumper Lotus. Bahar, self-admittedly, is not a car guy, so we didn't really have a storyline and didn't want to waste Bahar's time.
While waiting to speak with Smith, I spent some time looking at the Lotus concepts — including the new Elise — and the old Elise, sitting a few feet apart from the rest. Smith eventually came over and I asked him when the different models would eventually reach production. He gave me a timeline that included the new Elise hitting in 2013. It was then, as I realized the weight differential between the new Elise and the old Elise, I realized that I might have a cool storyline after all — but not for Bahar. I proposed to Smith that I'd like to have Justin do a story on the increase in weight from the old Elise to the new Elise. Specifically, I wanted to get a walk-through on the where the weight increases were coming from — and to determine how much, if any, of the increases were due to new governmental safety requirements.
Smith immediately lit up, telling me how hard it's been to get a message like that out to the public and that he had the perfect person to put is in front of and to have walk us around both cars to show us the differences — Lotus Chief Engineer Wolf Zimmerman. So we walked over to the office in the Lotus booth and set up a time of 11:30 for Justin to come down and interview Zimmerman.
Justin, along with one of our interns and a videographer, came downstairs to interview Zimmerman. They found the entire Lotus leadership team in a meeting and waited patiently for almost an hour. Finally, the meeting finished up and Justin walked over to interview Zimmerman. As he walked over, Smith instead pushed Bahar in front of Justin and told us Bahar would answer our questions. Confused, Justin went along with it, explaining the premise of our storyline. The result? This.
When Justin came back up to the press room, he showed me the video. I asked him to write up a story while I emailed Smith to find out what the hell happened. Here is my still-unanswered email below:
We waited over 12 hours for a response. Receiving none, I ran our story at 10:00 AM the next day.
Instead of a response from Smith, we received an email from Thomas Hofmann, Lotus Cars' Director of Group Communications. We're going to present Mr. Hofmann's response in its entirety, but we're also going to interject regularly to address it point-by-point.
Hmmmm, how best to start this mail? First of all, thanks for your interest in Lotus.
Your PR Jedi mind-trick — a naked attempt to disarm with humor — will not work on me. We weren't coming to talk to Lotus yesterday with the desire to learn about what an Elise is.
Secondly, as a former journalist myself, I understand your frustration at having an appointment cancelled – apologies for that.
OK, yeah, we're frustrated. But not really with having our appointment cancelled. We're frustrated with the dismissive and arrogant way in which Lotus CEO Dany Bahar treated our reasonable proposition explaining why the new Elise might weigh more than the old one. We're also frustrated at a company that clearly has abandoned the legacy of Colin Chapman and thinks it's not going to suffer a negative response from Lotus fans.
But with my journalist hat on I also have to say it wasn't right filming Dany Bahar in an interview situation without his knowledge and agreement – that's not justification or an explanation for his defensive response to your question – just a simple fact.
Are you fucking kidding me? The CEO of an automaker is handed off by a PR person to a journalist in public on their stand waiting for an interview during media days of an international auto show, asks what the question being asked is, acts like an asshole to them, at no point asks to go off the record — then expects to be granted some kind of carte blanche to say whatever he wants to say? Get real.
Look, we'll go off the record with sources, but at our discretion and definitely only when asked. And I'm sorry, but at no point does Bahar ask to keep his own prickish behavior in confidence while spouting off in the middle of his public stand.
Let me explain this very clearly, Mr. Hofmann — everything is on the record unless both parties agree otherwise. That's even more the case when you're at an event where the entire purpose is to, you know, speak on the record with press.
Now to address your concerns with regards to Lotus and weight - I want to take the opportunity here to help you understand our viewpoint a little better. People have a lot of love for Lotus, they feel very passionately about the brand and it's attributes of performance through lightweight and exceptional ride and handling. That's why – in principal – we won't change the core DNA of Colin Chapman's Lotus. Please let me quote Dany Bahar from his speech at the Paris Motor Show where he said: "I've read thousands of papers and documents from Colin Chapman – not in a single one does he mentioned, that a Lotus must weigh less than 1000kgs. But what he does say is that a Lotus always has to be lighter than our competitors. And that's what I can promise: A Lotus will always be lighter, cheaper and will have less CO2 emissions than our competitors, but to be competitive now, we have to do things differently".
So why are Lotus changing the approach? People say "if it aint broke, don't fix it" but what they don't realise from a business perspective is that Lotus did need fixing and that's what we're trying to do. Let me quote Bob Lutz, who is working as an advisor for Lotus, from one of our media events in Los Angeles when he was asked about the ambitious business plan and the risk of failing, where he said: "If there are only two scenarios from a business perspective: dead or nearly dead, and you then ask me which I prefer I'm going to go with nearly dead and try something to survive".
And that's what we are doing. Lotus moves into a more premium segment whilst still taking the core values with us, but in order to expand from an enthusiast niche segment to a more day to day usable sports car which more people will hopefully buy, we have to make compromises. We know that we won't please everybody with that decision and we also understand that there will be some people who feel Lotus is no longer Lotus, but these people should know that we are trying to take as much of our DNA into the future. And one more important point: there will always be an accessible entry level sports car in our range like the Elise, we are not turning our backs on our existing clients.
See, now, this sounds reasonable. You know what else would be reasonable? Having a CEO who says this to journalists at an international auto show!
But, you've also got to realize that the desire to move beyond being a boutique low-volume automaker is going to rankle some of your fans who think you should only be continuing to make the Elise and nothing else. Better to rip this band-aid off now rather than do it slowly.
And Justin, something else to give you some insight, a couple of weeks ago when Lotus engineering great Roger Becker came to the factory to collect his special edition Elise he said to one of my team: "Where Lotus is going now is exactly where Colin would have wanted to take it." – I'm not sure what more I can tell you on this but it's an interesting view point.
Qualified third-party recommendations make a lot of sense. You know what else makes sense? Having Roger Becker speak at your press conference instead of Billy "The Brother You Don't Know" Baldwin!
I'm not asking you to take the video down,
Good, because we wouldn't even think of doing it.
because when I read some of the inappropriate comments following your blog then I can see that the damage is already done
Again, that damage is being done because your CEO and PR team failed at explaining why your brand's new direction is going to do anything but anger life-long fans of the brand.
– beside this Lotus is also aware that our approach is a polarising one and we're not afraid to face controversy –
Well, if you know that this approach is a polarising (sic) one, then maybe you'll also not sound so surprised at the "inappropriate" comments on our story.
but perhaps you could use this mail on your site to also express our viewpoint a bit better.
Director of Group Communications
LOTUS CARS LIMITED
There you go. The Lotus response. Smith also had a response — but not to my email. He apparently only responds when his boss emails — and his response is to completely ignore that he'd OK'ed the direction of the story:
We know this post isn't going to win us any points or access with Lotus but it's important to us that we write this — to show that this is the new Lotus.