FRANKFURT -- Massage seats and a perfume diffuser aren't features you'd expect on a mass-market compact car. But they're available in Europe on the redesigned Opel Astra, at the directive of the brand's marketing maven, Tina Mueller.
It has been two years since General Motors plucked Mueller and her brand-whiz bona fides from the cosmetics industry to give Opel a sorely needed makeover. Since then she has confronted Opel's faded image with edgy advertising that all but commands viewers to ditch their preconceived notions of the 116-year-old German car brand. The title of her first big campaign literally urged people to "unpark" the image of Opel in their heads.
"I have to be louder in my campaigns," the nattily dressed Mueller, 47, who has a shock of dark curly hair and pronounced German accent, said at the auto show here last month. "I can dare more, be more courageous. I have to bring something different."
It's a brand-restoration project that her GM counterparts at Buick, Cadillac and Chevrolet face to varying degrees: how to convince consumers to reboot their perception of a brand whose heyday is in the rearview mirror.
Opel's market share in Europe sank for 14 straight years through 2012, before posting gains in each of the last two years. Until recently, the only time Opel was in the news was amid rumors of GM dumping the brand, or laying off employees.
Much is riding on the resuscitation plan laid out by Mueller and her boss, Opel chief Karl-Thomas Neumann. GM is counting on Opel to return to profitability next year and, by 2022, to contribute 5 percent pretax operating profit. The plan relies on growing market share to 8 percent by then, from 6.7 percent today.
Some doubt those gains can be achieved. IHS Automotive foresees Opel's share staying flat or even declining, mired amid Europe's glut of mainstream brands.
Opel has had some wins lately. The Mokka subcompact crossover has risen to No. 2 in Europe since its 2013 launch, according to JATO Dynamics. Sales of Opel's top seller, the Corsa subcompact, have grown since the rollout of a redesign last year.
For that launch, Mueller decided to put a twist on the cliche of the car-show model. She enlisted Paris-based fashion designer and photographer Karl Lagerfeld, who took pictures of his white cat perched on the Corsa's hood.
"We got huge publicity," Mueller said.
Mueller last month was named the auto industry's Brand Manager of the Year by the German Design Council. The group said Mueller's campaigns have "succeeded in getting into people's minds" and revitalized the brand, "even though she is not an automotive expert."
That much was apparent when Mueller was approached about the Opel job in early 2013. She had recently left her post at German consumer-products giant Henkel, where she ran the cosmetics division.
She had never heard of Neumann and only knew Opel as a brand that wouldn't have impressed her previous clientele.
After Googling everything she could find on Opel and its business, Mueller drafted an unflinching brand strategy that she presented to Neumann -- unsolicited -- at her job interview.
"I told him: 'Make the brand much more modern, more fashionable,'" she said. "'Build a comeback story. Give people the feeling that this is a restart of the brand and the company.'"
That served as the basis for the "Umparken im Kopf" campaign in 2014, loosely translated as "change parking spots in your head." The sassy ads included a billboard that joked that 90 percent of men think red-haired women are more exciting, but 68 percent of them have never met one. German ad agency Scholz & Friends Group handles Opel's campaigns.
Neumann says Opel's sales rebound "is not least based on our clearly improved brand image," which he credited to Mueller and her team.
The redesigned Astra will be a critical test. The No. 4 compact in Europe was once No. 1, but is now outsold 3-to-1 by the market-leading VW Golf, according to JATO Dynamics.
Mueller says the massage seat and perfume system are examples of how Opel can use GM's global resources to offer features that stand out.
And she's not above begging. When GM CEO Mary Barra attended the auto show here, the ebullient Mueller lobbied her for more innovations.
"I told her 'Please make sure we get automated drive technology early in Opel,'" Mueller said. "If I can have one or two features that nobody else has at that moment, I can win."