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AFTER MERCEDES-CHRYSLER DEAL, BMW SHOULD BUY OLDSMOBILE AND BUICK

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General motors corp. stock has been on the rise lately. Why?

Certainly not because it's rebating its way to higher market share. Certainly not because of its snazzy vehicles. Certainly not because of its catchy advertising.

Then why, especially in the wake of the Mercedes-Chrysler deal, is GM stock on the move?

Maybe because, all of a sudden, its laggard car divisions, like Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac, are worth something to another global carmaker intent on keeping up with DaimlerChrysler, the new giant car company.

GM would be a stronger company if it were smaller and more focused. It's overlapping divisions not only cause consumer confusion (and worse, indifference) in the marketplace, but siphon precious resources from more attractive nameplates.

But in the hands of, say, BMW, Oldsmobile and Buick would make sense. Even though BMW, like Mercedes, would have to be careful to keep the high-tech, upscale German car separate from the pedestrian models, the ruboff would be very helpful to Oldsmobile and Buick.

Lest you think that GM would suffer because it would lack two stepping stones in Alfred Sloan's "ladder" approach of multiple price range vehicles, the company could bridge the gap by giving Pontiac more luxurious vehicles (a fancy sport-utility model would be nice, among others) and Cadillac less luxurious ones. The Catera, which doesn't make any sense for Cadillac under present circumstances, would be a more suitable lead-in from Pontiac once GM shed Oldsmobile and Buick.

The wild card in this scenario is Saturn. I don't think old Alfred Sloan thought of Saturn when he devised his famous marketing ploy. Saturn is perhaps GM's best brand, even though GM is starving it of new product.

Saturn could very easily be repositioned to take the place of Oldsmobile and Buick, especially since it's having a hard time selling its limited range of small cars.

Why would BMW want to buy Oldsmobile and Buick? Because it can't survive by continuing as a niche player. Its 1994 acquisition of the Rover Group didn't change that perception, so it needs downscale nameplates to round out its line. BMW could pull a mini-Alfred Sloan by making Oldsmobile more entry level and Buick a lead-in to the BMW models. (Don't both Oldsmobile and Buick have much more of a cachet if owned by BMW? Suddenly, it's not your father's Oldsmobile anymore.)

Two marketing professors, writing in The Wall Street Journal the other day, made the case that car companies don't need more than two major brands-"an upscale brand and a broad-based brand that is typically the corporate name. Thus, we have Toyota and Lexus, Ford and Jaguar.*.*.and the new Chrysler and Mercedes."

As for GM, they said its problem is that it is "poorly integrated" in terms of operations and market identity.

"Few customers around the world even know the `GM' brand; they know the company only through its divisions, such as Chevrolet, Opel, Cadillac and Vauxhall. GM essentially operates as eight more-or-less independent car companies, none of which can rival the efficiencies of scale Toyota's globally integrated production and marketing system.*.*.GM's current supremacy is based on profitless market share, which means its lead is ultimately not sustainable."

By paring down its lineup of cars, GM could become better integrated (although it would have a long way to go) and also better able to more sharply position its divisions. The GM brand management system, which has been a flop so far because the company has way too many overlapping models, would become more efficient, and GM's ad dollars could finally contribute to building solid market share increases.

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