Triage for GM's Olds

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Most oldsmobiles sold over the past 103 years are in the scrap heap. That's where this exhausted brand now belongs. General Motors Corp. made the right decision last week to send Olds to the crusher, but the wrong one in keeping the brand around for up to three more years in what amounts to a three-year going-out-of-business sale.

It wasn't long ago that Olds was at the top of its game. Its Cutlass was the No. 1 selling car model in 1977. During its best year-1985-Olds sold more than 1 million cars, making it the No. 3 car brand, behind only Chevrolet and Ford. Then Olds sales crashed. Customers saw no reason to pay a premium for rebadged Chevys and flocked to imports that delivered quality, value and style.

In 1906, Olds ran an ad promoting "a four-cylinder car having the style, quality, power and mechanical construction equal to the best imported cars." Nearly a century later, Olds returned to that tack as GM's import fighter. But it didn't work. GM's me-too products get part of the blame, but the general problem was The General's problem-bureaucratic, bumbling management.

The specific problem was marketing. Olds was a tired brand; GM and Olds agency Leo Burnett USA couldn't find a formula to fix it. Burnett coined one of the most-remembered car slogans of the '80s: "This is not your father's Oldsmobile." However, there was little truth in that advertising. Instead, it became a punchline to a joke.

Is there a marketing genius who might have resurrected Olds? Yes. But that's irrelevant. GM's new CEO, Rick Wagoner, made the right decision to junk Olds and focus on better prospects. But letting Olds slowly die, as models live out their product cycle, is a bad move. Olds' cars aren't best-of-breed, but analysts say they are among GM's best. Certainly someone at GM could find a way to more quickly bid adieu to Olds-and shift products to other divisions while the best models still have value.

Coming to grips with its diminished hold on the U.S. auto market has been a long and painful trip for GM. With its market share at 26% last month, compared to 45% in 1980, the time for some marketing triage could not be put off forever. Olds' empty ad slogan last year was "Start something." Now GM has recognized the need to stop something.

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