Brand Management at the Big Three

Article excerpt

The stakes are high as Detroit automakers wrestle with a marketing concept that has been untried in heavy industry.

For years, Jim Rogers' life was all about "eating pizza-flavored stuffing at 7 a.m.," as he puts it. As a longtime brand-management specialist at General Foods, his job was to help products such as Open Pit Barbecue Sauce and Stove Top Stuffing Mix thrive in a crowded marketplace. And he did that job very well.

"When it comes to stuffing or barbecue sauce, some people won't buy anything but one brand, while others are impulse shoppers," Rogers says. "This may sound like a silly insight, but what we did with those two products is to pile them up at the retail level. For example, just go into your local grocery store on Memorial Day, Labor Day or the Fourth of July and look at one of the end aisles. It will be loaded with barbecue sauce. By piling it up, we managed to grow share in a business that was losing share for 20 years."

Today, Rogers is not pushing two-dollar items such as stuffing or barbecue sauce. He's the top brand manager at Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln-Mercury division. With this year-old position, the division is testing whether brand management will be as effective in selling big-ticket items such as cars as it has been in moving diapers and deodorant.

It's too soon to tell whether the lessons Rogers learned in the food business can be translated to $20,000 Mercury Sables or $40,000 Lincoln Town Cars. Just "piling them up" clearly won't work. Still, Lincoln-Mercury officials insist they need a man like Jim Rogers - and a marketing concept like brand management.

"There's the feeling that Detroit is behind," says Anne Doyle, who manages Lincoln-Mercury public affairs. "At the division, we have two critical brands which have the problem of needing a separate identity from the corporate brand. We're faced with the challenge of building brands that have been around for a long time. That's where someone like Jim Rogers comes in."

Like Coke, Like Cars

As Ford scrambles to adopt a brand-management system, Detroit is shaping up as a big laboratory experiment for this marketing concept. All of the Big Three automakers have focused on building their brand assets in recent years, albeit in their own ways.

At General Motors Corp., brand management has become a corporate mantra of sorts since 1992, when Chairman John Sinale - who joined GM from Procter & Gamble - led a boardroom revolt at the troubled company. Brand management was one of the proposed solutions to declining sales and market share. And while Chrysler Corp. has turned up its nose at the idea of hiring individual brand managers, it makes everyone responsible for marketing brands, from the CEO on down.

The styles of brand management may differ, but the goal is the same. Detroit wants to do what Nike, Disney, Coca-Cola, Marlboro and other masters of brand management have already accomplished. Products such as Coca-Cola and Marlboro are so well-managed, according to marketing experts, that while consumers may not be able to identify them in a blind taste test, brand loyalty remains exceedingly high.

Taking a page from those success stories, the Big Three are learning to treat each brand as an asset in their product portfolios, a philosophy that affects everything from the design of vehicles to their advertising campaigns. Well-managed brands allow companies to shift the demand curve, generate more volume and charge premium prices. These assets improve a brand's marketplace longevity and foster loyalty, even on a global basis.

"What's happening in the auto industry is worth watching," says John Hoffecker, vice president at A.T. Kearney Inc. and leader of its North American automotive practice, based in Detroit. "In fact, everyone who hasn't been involved in brand management should be watching because there will be a lot of lessons to be learned and clearly a lot of applicability to other industries. …