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Under John Middlebrook's direction, General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac division earlier this year adopted a brand management system that adapts Procter & Gamble Co.'s structure and philosophy to the automotive business.

Mr. Middlebrook, Pontiac's VP-general manager, is giving brand managers broad responsibility for developing product features and marketing programs that match a vehicle's image. In effect, each Pontiac vehicle line is being treated as a brand.

Also playing a role behind the scenes was John Smale, GM chairman and former P&G chairman.

Mr. Middlebrook discussed the development and workings of Pontiac's brand management sys-tem in a recent interview with Raymond Serafin, Advertising Age's Detroit bureau chief.

AA: How did you design your system?

Mr. Middlebrook: We spent a lot of time just trying to understand how brands are managed at P&G, and in soft goods and in other things. And then we said, "What does that mean for the auto business?" There's a lot of differences, because an auto is a big-ticket purchase. Nobody takes a picture of their first bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Our agency [D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.], with its connections with P&G and the work they do, helped bring in some experts. We picked their brains and went through how they do their budgets and their brand management process. [General Director-Brand Management and Marketing] Lynn Myers has been our spearhead on that.

AA: If buying a car is different than buying a bucket of chicken or a bar of soap, what can you learn from studying those businesses?

Mr. Middlebrook: There is an equity that develops in a brand, and you need to measure it, understand it and then reinforce it. The package-goods business has been so good at that. I think we got a much greater realization of the intangible value of a brand, and how you need to grow it and protect it.

We can see examples of how we overlooked that as we look back through our history, at the messages we've given and the way it's varied from year to year. In some cases, we have flippantly changed names of products as they came out and threw away whatever equity might have been built with the old one.

AA: What are you hoping to accomplish with the brand management system?

Mr. Middlebrook: We really want to improve the total focus on each of our car-line brands, across not only Pontiac but in all our interactions with the platform and design staffs, with our agency and ultimately with our customer. By setting up a brand management organization where we've got a clear team that is responsible for everything that affects that brand, we think we can better focus and explain to our partners what our brand's all about. Then we can get the best execution of product, whether that be the design phase or in the manufacturing execution.

AA: Is Pontiac the lead GM division on this process?

Mr. Middlebrook: We're taking the lead organizationally, moving to brand managers and combining what traditionally was product planning and market planning. There was a lot of participation from GM corporate people to set up a process to measure equity and to move directionally into a management-of-the-brand kind of concept.

We're sharing all of our learning with the rest of GM.

AA: In the past, a Pontiac executive wouldn't talk about Bonneville or Grand Am as a brand. Those were just models, and Pontiac was the brand.

Mr. Middlebrook: We spent a lot of time early on this, asking ourselves the question, "What is the brand?" And, frankly, John Smale was asking it, too: "Is it Pontiac or is it Bonneville?"

We're very comfortable now in saying that we have a family of brands under the Pontiac umbrella. Pontiac is where you buy it. So we have a family of car-line brands, six at Pontiac, and they all benefit together. They'd better not contradict one another, because the greater equity of Pontiac has to be supported by the car-line brands, and vice versa.

Pontiac is the umbrella, and for each car-line brand we can say, in a pretty concise way, a reason for being-who's it for, what's it do for them, why will they like it. Putting those reasons for being for each brand took a lot of time. As we start to see that float through the marketing and the advertising, and hopefully in the dealer showrooms, we'll see the power of this brand equity to grow the brand.

AA: Does that mean brand names should have longer lives and we won't see as many model-name changes?

Mr. Middlebrook: Absolutely. We won't change a name without an awful lot of good facts and discussion. As we develop tools to measure the equity of a brand, if things go sour then there will be a reason to change. But it won't be because we have an all-new car and we just want a spiffy new name.

AA: If you look at lines as a brand, will that lead to more consistent marketing support for

Mr. Middlebrook: We'll always have products, like the Sunfire now, that will take a disproportionate part of budget to get seeded in the market. But we will not forget our other products. In 1995, we are doing advertising on all six car-line brands, and there's been a lot of years we haven't done that. That won't happen now because we wouldn't let a brand go stale.

We're going to have a healthy debate on how to split up our consumer-influence budget. It's the brand manager's responsibility to make the case, and to have a healthy discussion at budget time as to what we put behind each one.

AA: From the outside, it appears John Smale is beginning to have a real impact on GM marketing.

Mr. Middlebrook: There's no question that his influence has crept in. It's been more from just asking good questions.

In my interactions, he always says, "This may not apply in your business, but this is something I've learned over the years in mine." He asks, "What is your process for budgeting to a brand?" and things like that to get you thinking about how it applies to our business.

AA: Is there evidence of the brand management system in the Sunfire, the new small car Pontiac is introducing this fall?

Mr. Middlebrook: Yes. Sunfire was under development as a product before we got into brand management. But the Sunfire advertising came through the brand management process, where we focused on the car's reason for being and targeting our customer.

We're seeing the results as we execute all of our advertising for 1995. We went through the process of determining the key message for each of our products, and then how we explain it came together without a whole lot of disagreement. Whereas, before we would be throwing lots of ideas on the wall without a thorough understanding of the customers we're after and the key beliefs we're trying to lead them to.

AA: What will be the first product to come completely through the brand management process?

Mr. Middlebrook: It really won't be until about the 1998 model year, just because of the timing it takes for a new product. We just put the brand management focus in here at the first of the year. But each product that comes out, we'll have more of that focus in them.

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