BRAND MANAGEMENT'S DECLINE MAY HAUNT GM

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Just as General Motors is adopting a brand management system to market its dozens of car models more efficiently, brand managers are becoming an endangered species.

Procter & Gamble Co., with its myriad versions of soaps and detergents, invented the concept to help give each competing brand a clear identity (even if they were pretty much the same). Now P&G's former chairman, John Smale, has brought the idea to GM to try to give similar cars with different nameplates their own distinct personalities.

The only problem is the two situations are not the same. Package-goods marketers first establish a strong brand name, like Tylenol, and then they add line extensions. Each new Tylenol product reinforces the efficacy claim of the original headache remedy.

But at GM its various models within each car division are a hodgepodge of claims, rendering the overall nameplate a confusing cacophony of images. And some models are completely out of place within the division. Why, for instance, is the sleek Aurora a fuddy-duddy Oldsmobile?

The danger is that product managers within the same division will continue to take different approaches with their various models. How many different ways can you create a clear identity for a sports utility vehicle? There are bound to be overlapping claims, across division lines.

What's needed to make all this work is strong, well-directed divisional advertising that various models within the division can play off. I haven't seen much of that so far.

A bigger problem is that the very foundation of the brand management system seems to be breaking down. Technology is allowing marketers to become customer driven, rather than product driven. There's a big difference.

As Mike Feldman, managing partner of the database marketing practice at Boston's Exchange Partners, explained it: "If you are aligned in a product management model, all your databases probably are set up to track fragments of customer behavior as they pertain to individual products, as opposed to looking at the whole customer."

General Motors hardly needs any more turf battles, but this disparate way of looking at the customer is where they can arise. "Product managers used to be able to do what they wanted with their customers, but now there might be a `segment' manager in whose segment that customer is," Mr. Feldman said.

I can see it now. One product manager within one GM division makes the same claim as another model's product manager, either in the same division or in another division. GM will have to put in a whole new layer of segment managers to ride herd on similar claims within the same division. But what happens if the claims come from two or even three divisions? GM will have product managers battling with segment managers within one division and segment managers battling with segment managers among and between divisions.

What a mess!

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