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Why are so many big marketers -- McDonald's, Nike, Levi's, Kodak, General Motors -- hitting a brick wall these days?

To ask another question, is it a clue that four of the five are single-brand companies? (To be technical, Levi's also markets Dockers, the only line of the entire bunch that's doing well. Is that because it's not Levi's?).

The problem is, if you have all your eggs in one basket, and for one reason or another your brand goes out of style, you and your company have a major problem. Fortune headlined a story on Nike, "Four reasons Nike's not cool." It's not easy to regain your coolness. The same goes for Levi's, which suddenly found its blue jeans out of fashion.

Look at the advantages a rigorous multiproduct company has. Not only does a strong lineup of brands protect a company from the ups and downs of the marketplace, but they can work together to generate stronger sales for them all. Kraft Foods, for instance, is working on a promotion that will take advantage of the interplay among brands. As Robert Eckert, Kraft's President-CEO, told our Chicago Bureau Chief Judann Pollack: "We've been very effective in going into the supermarket and talking about the collection of brands -- how you can put these things together to satisfy what busy moms are going through in trying to put together meal solutions . . .

"The next logical step is to do this with consumers as well. So we are working on a marketing program that does recognize what's going on in households today and does bring together our brands to address it."

GM, of course, has multiple brands, but instead of bringing them together, the current thinking seems to be to divide them into as many fragmented pieces as their marketing people can devise. At GM, each model of each car make is deemed a brand. And each one warrants a separate marketing strategy and ad program.

Package-goods marketers, meantime, are moving in the opposite direction. Every marketing thrust for Kraft's Maxwell House coffee is under the broad Maxwell House umbrella. "That allows us to respect one idea . . . We make Maxwell House, and we have enough brands that we can satisfy whatever your coffee taste is," said Mr. Eckert.

"We talk increasingly about Post, and we're talking increasingly about Kraft in our `Everybody has a taste for Kraft' salad dressing campaign. We used to do separate ads for one flavor that was different than an ad for another flavor. That doesn't work anymore."

It doesn't work for GM, either, but that hasn't stopped it. As GM's share of market dips below 30%, its big brands get virtually no support or reinforcement; only the individual car models like DeVille or Park Avenue get recognition.

Is there a connection between GM's declining share of market and the total absence of brand development? It sure looks that way to me.

What's really crazy, however, is that GM's successful new brand, Saturn, is being bled dry, while GM lavishes new models on fuddy-duddy car makes like Cadillac and Oldsmobile. I've said it once and I'll say it again: Cadillac's Catera should have been a Saturn.

Maybe Saturn would be better off as a stand-alone brand that GM could spin off. I think it would have a good chance of survival, if only because its very premise is built upon how the automobile actually interacts with its customers.

Other one-brand companies have become into trouble because they've gotten removed from their customers and their customers' needs. As one of our readers pointed out, what does "Did Somebody Say McDonald's?" mean. "That McDonald's was popular at one time, but now almost forgotten? Like Hadacol? . . . "Whatever it means it sounds halting, tentative, shy and weak. Certainly a long way from the commanding tone Big Mac assumed in the past."

Come to think of it, the same tentative marketing goes for the other single-brand companies I mentioned -- Nike, Levi and Kodak. Doubt has crept in; they're not sure who they are anymore. Only bad things can happen, especially from the more sure-footed competition.

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