OLDS, APPROACHING AGE 100, AIMS TO TIE CARS TO EVENT

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General Motors Corp.'s Olds-mobile recently asked consumers if they attached any significance to the division's upcoming centennial celebration as the U.S.' oldest continuously operating carmaker. The sobering answer: Not much.

"The general opinion was `That's nice, but what have you done for me lately?"' said Bob Jarboe, who retired in 1989 as Olds-mobile's director of field marketing and is back now as the project coordinator for the 100th birthday celebration in 1997.

That means Mr. Jarboe's job is to turn a historical look-back into a way to draw attention to how struggling Olds is recasting its image to appeal to upscale, sophisticated consumers who tend to buy import nameplates.

LINK WITH NEW PRODUCT

"We can't let the tail wag the dog," he said. "Our challenge is to link the celebration to the kind of products we're developing as we move into the next century."

Oldsmobile's centennial will be Aug. 21, 1997, 100 years after Ransom E. Olds set up the Olds Motor Vehicle Co. in Lansing, Mich. Mr. Jarboe said the yearlong celebration might begin this August on NBC's Olympics broadcast, with mention of the centennial being worked into Olds advertising being developed by Leo Burnett USA, Chicago.

Mr. Jarboe is also looking at how to work the centennial into the division's 1997 sponsorships of the NCAA basketball Final Four, golf's Ryder Cup and the Olds-mobile Scramble, a series of annual golf tournaments.

Also in the works, a commemorative book and video and an August 1997 celebration in Lansing that will bring in owners clubs and their classic cars.

RETAILERS' ROLE

Oldsmobile retailers may hold local celebrations to bring in owners, similar to the way dealers for GM sister unit Saturn Corp. invited owners in for local events tied to a 1994 "homecoming" that included a big bash at Saturn's assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn.

Steve Shannon, the former Saturn marketing executive who's now Olds' general marketing manager, said the centennial is important to employees, dealers, owners and Lansing itself.

"But for the young woman who drives a Honda Accord and is the target for our future products, it's a lot less important," he said. "Fundamentally, our products and eventually our advertising have to demonstrate that this is a new kind of company."

SOME HEADWAY

Olds is making some headway with the Aurora, a luxury sports sedan, and the LSS, an upscale spinoff from the Eighty Eight. Now in the pipeline: a redesigned Bravada sport-utility vehicle; a Ciera replacement, to be called Cutlass; and the new midsize Intrigue sedan.

Nevertheless, the transition to import fighter is a tough assignment for Olds, which risks losing its core of older buyers. Sales have fallen off nearly 30% from 1990, to 387,545 units in 1995.

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