PEOPLE;PLAYER OF THE WEEK;DODGE TURNAROUND ARTIST LEVINE'S NEW CHALLENGE;CHRYSLER EXEC'S LATEST MISSION IS TO HEAD NEW UNIT COMBINING 4 AUTO BRANDS

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Martin Levine, who reshaped Chrysler Corp.'s sagging Dodge brand, has a new job and a new mission: to work his magic on the Chrysler, Plymouth, Eagle and Jeep brands.

Not all those brands are in as much trouble as Dodge was when Mr. Levine took the helm in 1990 as the division's general manager. Chrysler Corp. President Robert Lutz recently described Plymouth and Eagle brands as "works in progress."

Mr. Levine, tapped as the general manager of the newly combined Chrysler-Plymouth and Jeep-Eagle division in August, said the four brands have great products.

"The product has evolved, but the images often remained the same," he said.

CATCH-UP GAME

It's the responsibility of marketing to change those images, Mr. Levine said. "The marketing task is very important.

The marketing task is to ensure the public perception catches up with the great-looking engineering and design the product side has been doing."

It's almost a rerun of his blueprint for Dodge's brand makeover.

When Mr. Levine started at Dodge, Chrysler was recovering from near bankruptcy and a legacy of boxy, boring K-cars made for each brand. Dodge's truck side was virtually on hold from the early 1970s until the late 1980s. And stodgy Dodge wasn't even on consumers' shopping lists.

Chrysler began revamping Dodge's product lineup, and the design and engineering side of the business also started doing the same for the other brands.

Under Mr. Levine, Dodge has become known for its vehicles' performance and bold design, and the brand has revamped its entire lineup. Unit sales rose from 507,072 in 1993 to 1.2 million in the '96 model year, ended Sept. 30.

`ONE OF THE BEST'

That's good news to dealers. Rob Robbins, a Dodge dealer in suburban Detroit, described Mr. Levine as "without question one of the best marketing people."

Mr. Levine said his biggest challenge at Dodge was to change the public perception to match the reality of the new products. "Our image was clearly K-cars, the same, bland appliance motors."

He said he knew the "New Dodge" brand had turned the corner when he introduced the boldly styled Dodge Ram at Detroit's auto show in 1993.

The truck has since set a slew of Chrysler sales records.

More Ram pickups were sold in the first nine months of this year than in any full calendar year in the automaker's history. Its share in the pickup segment rose from just under 7% in '93 to 20.4% at the end of September.

NEW AD APPROACH

Dick Johnson, president-chief creative officer of the Southfield, Mich., office of BBDO Worldwide and the top creative on the Dodge account, said Mr. Levine was his first automotive client to accept something different in car advertising: a campaign that didn't show a car on a road or people who drive the vehicle. That campaign was for the Intrepid.

"We're not spending millions of dollars to portray the lifestyle of the buyers. If the vehicle is that good, let's talk about the product," Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Johnson described Mr. Levine as a "great client with vision." One reason: Mr. Levine allowed BBDO's Dodge team to work with engineers and designers early in the development of a vehicle so they could understand it.

Mr. Levine, he added, is "incredibly smart, the hardest working man I've ever seen, who's dedicated to doing the right thing. He won't get into backbiting, catfighting or politics. I miss him."

In 1993, after the Intrepid was launched, Mr. Levine realized he and his then-ad manager Jay Kuhnie spent too long getting ad campaigns approved, noting, "It was a six-month process."

So in preparing to launch Dodge Neon, they started mapping the launch steps that initially looked like a timing chart.

"Making internal presentations are a waste. We looked at all the things we would do and we laughed because it was all showmanship inside the company," she said. The process was streamlined and now fewer people are involved in approvals.

Mr. Levine has just started working with the Southfield office of Bozell to do the same for Chrysler, Plymouth, Jeep and Eagle. He doesn't expect the process changes to be the same as Dodge's. "We are going to have a marketing process that will improve our work in a measurable way," he said.

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