GM'S BRAND RESCUE

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A favorite pastime these days is to offer General Motors Corp. advice on what to do with its seven car and truck brands. Muddled brand identities are a big reason GM has lost more than 11 points of market share since the beginning of the 1980s.

A popular recent idea is that GM should eliminate one or more of these "umbrella" brands. Oldsmobile was a target. More recently, it's been Buick, or even Pontiac-one GM brand with a clear market position.

Scrapping a brand is preferable to letting it languish or compromise other brands. But GM's own history proves that strong, distinct brands are a competitive advantage.

So we support GM management in its new determination to make its many brands a marketplace plus again, a platform for strategies based on targeting more sharply defined customer segments. New brand managers, for example, have broad authority to oversee everything related to the marketing of specific car-line models like Chevy Blazer (while keeping the Blazer's "Chevyness" intact). Vehicle line executives will oversee engineering and manufacturing the models. It's a blend of ideas borrowed from elsewhere, like Toyota Motor Corp.'s product development czars and Procter & Gamble Co.'s brand management philosophy.

There's no magic to applying brand management to the auto industry, but we are certain automakers can profit from more in-depth thinking about satisfying customers and building distinct brand identities.

The new structure is going to force that sort of disciplined thinking about market goals, and will drive accountability into the system. That makes it a major step forward for GM. And it is a step, too, on the long road back to making its brands powerful assets.

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