THE NEW VOICE AT GM

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When Ronald Zarrella made his first public speech since becoming General Motors Corp.'s marketing czar, he joked about predictions that soon "I'd be brainwashed by the GM culture machine and I'd start to sound like everyone else."

Nothing like that has happened so far.

His April 27 speech to the Automotive Press Association in Detroit included a blunt admission of GM's brand identity problems. "The way our vehicle products have been targeted in the past, many are right on top of each other," said Mr. Zarrella, the former Bausch & Lomb president-chief operating officer who joined GM in December as group VP in charge of North American sales, service and marketing.

By itself, it was refreshing to hear a GM executive own up to GM's central marketing problem. But Mr. Zarrella didn't stop there. He outlined a vision to differentiate the brands, and then sketched out a plan to build and maintain brand equity through the creation of the kind of brand management teams typical of package goods companies like Procter & Gamble.

GM even plans to hire some more non-automotive outsiders for the brand manager jobs. That is rattling a lot of cages in Detroit, where machismo lives and "car guys" disdain the very idea that they can learn anything from the marketers of soap and contact lens cleaners.

It's obvious that John Smale, the former P&G chief who is now GM's chairman, envisioned revolutionary changes when he insisted on hiring an outsider for the automaker's top marketing post. Mr. Zarrella thus far appears to be up to the job, and it's heartening that he seems to have the firm backing of top management.

We're hopeful enough to predict that Mr. Zarrella will continue to sound nothing at all like a typical GM insider-at least not until he accomplishes his mission of remaking the way the automaker thinks about its brands.

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