GENEVA -- For the past few years, General Motors executives have fought a valiant battle in Europe on Opel's behalf: insisting that the brand was a premium marque above mainstream Chevrolet, while fending off persistent rumors of Opel's sale or demise.
That battle is over. Opel is back to being GM's mainstream brand in Europe with the decision late last year to yank Chevy from the market, and Opel has the full backing of GM's new leadership. Now comes the hard part: revitalizing a faded brand that had lost market share for 14 straight years, before a slight uptick last year.
Opel is embarking on its largest ever marketing campaign in its home country of Germany, where Volkswagen outsells it by more than 3 to 1. The tongue-in-cheek campaign, dubbed "Umparken im Kopf," asks consumers to "unpark" their preconceived notions about Opel. For instance, a billboard advertisement jokes that 90 percent of men think red-haired women are more exciting, but 68 percent of them have never met one.
Opel's image makeover is crucial for GM, which is pouring $5.2 billion into its European turnaround effort through 2022. GM aims to stop losing money in Europe by 2016, a goal that has become even more crucial now that its mostly Asian international division, excluding China, has turned unprofitable amid pricing pressures.
Tim Urquhart, a senior analyst for IHS Automotive in London, says Opel falls into a "midmarket morass" of several brands fighting for market share, including Peugeot and Citroen. "It'll take inspired leadership and solid products to get Opel back on track," he says.
Leading that effort is Tina Mueller, 45, a German who joined Opel as chief marketing officer last year after spending 20 years in marketing for cosmetics companies, including for the Schwarzkopf brand, owned by German consumer-products giant Henkel AG.