GM TO SUPPORT ITS INITIAL USED-CAR PUSH WITH $25 MIL;DECISION SHOULD COME SOON ON GIVING ACCOUNT TO AYER, CME, MULLEN OR TL

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General Motors Corp. aims to spend $20 million to $25 million on advertising for its certified used-cars program in 1997, according to executives familiar with the automaker's plans.

Last week, GM selected four agencies to pitch for the account, which could eventually grow to $75 million. The four are N.W. Ayer & Partners, New York; Campbell Mithun Esty, Minneapolis; Mullen, Wenham, Mass.; and TL Partnership, Dallas. Ayer, which handles GM's corporate account, is the only one currently on GM's roster.

BRANDING STRATEGY

GM has asked each agency to present a branding strategy for the used-car program the week of Dec. 16, and hopes to make a decision soon thereafter.

The used-car program is GM's response to a new source of competition: nationally branded used-car chains that are sweeping the nation.

The most aggressive of these, CarMax and AutoNation USA, have strong financial backing and '97 ad budgets of $20 million or more.

"A lot of the cars these chains are selling are GM cars," said an executive at one of the four finalist agencies. "GM wants to be the one making those sales."

PILOT PROGRAM

GM started a certification pilot program early this year in Las Vegas and Atlanta. Buick agency McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Troy, Mich., handled advertising for those tests.

The expanded program is expected to cover Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac-GMC dealerships. Cadillac and Saturn already have their own certification programs, as do many European and Japanese brands. Generally, all of the programs offer consumers used cars that have been inspected, certified and warranted for quality.

Dean Rotondo, communications manager for GM's North American Operations, declined to confirm the agency list, though he agreed four made the cut.

Other contenders included Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, Partners & Shevack and Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor, all New York.

Mr. Rotondo said GM hopes to pick an agency by yearend.

"We are looking for an agency with a strong history of brand management, a strong retail background and a strong portfolio of commercials," Mr. Rotondo said earlier this month (AA, Nov. 4).

CME'S EXPERIENCE

CME has a roster full of retail and brand-management clients, including Kmart Corp., International Dairy Queen and General Mills. It also was a runner-up in last spring's review for one of the fledgling used-car chains, Driver's Mart Worldwide.

TL Partnership is considered a leader in field marketing. It handles all local marketing for Pepsi-Cola Co. and a big portion of Pizza Hut's local marketing. It also handles some of Budget Rent-a-Car's advertising.

Mullen once handled BMW of North America, while Ayer is a brand-management powerhouse, having worked for Procter & Gamble Co. for many years.

Contributing: Jean Halliday, Laura Petrecca.

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