Who needs brand management? GM's Lutz goes by his gut

News Analysis
Charles Child is news editor for Automotive News

Oct. 4 -- As Robert Lutz, General Motors' new product czar, wades into the company's product plans, one thing is clear: Brand management, as it was touted originally at GM, is dead.

Starting in 1995, Ron Zarrella, now president of GM North America, assigned brand managers to each GM vehicle. Their mission was to stay in touch with customers and help guide the company's marketing and product development.

But Lutz is doing what he does best - lending his keen eye to GM's cars and trucks under development. He already is making changes, and more are sure to come.

In other words, GM has reinstated a man with a golden gut. Instincts are in; exhaustive brand-management research is out.

Actually, GM never wholly trusted its brand managers. They are mid-level executives at best, making recommendations up the chain of command.

In a sense, GM was caught in a no-man's land. It didn't vest brand managers with power. But until now, it didn't have a product czar in the company's inner circle to guide product decisions. The results were committees, slow decisions and dull design.

These shortcomings didn't hurt GM's trucks because of the leadership of departing Tom Davis, who guided their development.

But with few exceptions, such as the Chevrolet Impala, GM cars are going nowhere. The current Chevrolet Cavalier, for instance, has been on the road for seven years. And it will be two more years before it is replaced.

Also, GM's effort to revive Oldsmobile failed. The company will build its last Oldsmobile in 2004.

Despite its shortcomings, brand management has made a mark at GM. For instance, GMC adopted an effective image and tagline, "We are Professional Grade," to separate it from Chevrolet. And the company recognized the value of Hummer and is quickly expanding its product line.

But with Lutz in charge of product development, brand management dropped a little lower on GM's organizational radar.

GM has reverted to a tried-and-true formula in Detroit, the golden gut.

You can reach Charles Child at (Unknown address)

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