• What am I doing here?

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    TONETTE LEE

    TONETTE LEE

    This is a question I’m asking myself as I type these words onto a screen. Twenty years ago, I accepted a job offer from a car manufacturer. The years that followed turned out to be some of the most exciting in my marketing career.

    In the mid 1990s, the industry outlook was rosy and hopeful, with a total annual volume of around 160,000 or so units. Manufacturing was abuzz with new model launches, and Santa Rosa, Laguna was bustling, as auto factories started rising, to produce units for the growing market of brand new cars. Back then, the market was small, consisting mainly of Japanese brands battling it out for the customers’ hearts and minds, and wallets. Toyota and Mitsubishi slugged it out for No. 1, as they had a full line-up of both passenger cars and commercial vehicles. Nissan held the perennial but also precarious No. 3 spot, constantly challenged by Honda with its winning Civic and City. Eventually, Honda did take Nissan’s spot. Only much later did Ford Motor Company join the fray, and on a totally different tack: building vehicles for export to other Ford markets in the region, as well as the Philippine market.

    In 1998, the Asian Crisis hit, and the Philippine auto market plummeted to first, 80,000 units a year, and then 70,000 or so units. As new car purchases slowed down, there was more and more downtime at the local manufacturing plants. At about the same time, an unexpected competitor came into the picture: the imported second-hand car. It took the whole auto industry several years to recover, and now, more vehicles are imported than made in Santa Rosa, but industry sales growth is exponential, and that can’t be bad. We can always build more roads.

    And what of the technology? Compared to today, many of the 1990s models would seem a tad basic, manufacturers had only started to fit their offerings with automatic transmissions, and a smattering of safety equipment: we remember the latest and greatest, which was the driver-side airbag supplemental restraint systems. Even keyless entry and power windows were novel features then. Today, we speak of self-drive cars, cars that are so connected, you can literally not drive them. If you like technology, or at least have no animosity toward it, then this is a great time when automotive technology starts to really transform itself.

    As for myself, I started with what is probably the most common “female” job in a male-dominated (then) industry: advertising and media relations. Eventually, I progressed to product planning and eventually managed entire brands, at different companies. I can never sit in a car for the first time without trying to figure out what VAVE took place before the final spec of the vehicle came out. VAVE? Value-Analysis-Value-Engineering. Every major specification and feature on that model spec list for every single variant stands for something: a desired benefit, a specific cost, and a projected perceived value. Yes, it was like that. I learned a lot about fitting a car with specs from my Japanese and Taiwanese bosses at Nissan, and I learned even more about consumer marketing from my colleagues at Ford. But enjoying the thrill of an exhilarating drive, and putting a soundtrack to each one, I learned with Mazda. I like cars: I like them new, I like them old. But more than just the cars I really like what they do for you: they take you to places you’ve never been, and now, how!

    So a few months back, when I got an invitation to write about cars from a female perspective, I could not resist it. But I did have to think twice, thrice, many times whether I agreed with the premise at all. I think cars are genderless, and every brand is an equal-opportunity fun provider. There is no limit to what a woman can drive, if the desire to do it and the will to learn present themselves. Let’s see where we go with the girl driver thing. If my editor thinks I have a story to tell, and a perspective to share, who am I to argue with that? That’s why I’m here. At your service.

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