As automakers begin to market their '96 models, gone from Commercials are the attractive,. scantily clad women who seem to be selling sex rather than four-door sedans. The buzz word these days is brand," and consumers better prepare themselves for a slew of ads and jingles, especially from the Big Three, designed to establish name recognition. The short of it is automakers are attempting to re-connect with the driving public.

The last 20 years have seen the domestic automotive market swell to more than 600 different models. They came at such a dizzying pace consumers lost track of who made what. "All the major brands have been telling me for the past 10 years is it's on sale," says Chip Stockdale, Oldsmobile's account executive in the Columbus, OH, office of Lord, Sullivan & Yoder (LSY). "If there's one thing I'm sure about in the automotive industry, it's I can find a car on sale."

Implicit in the high-pressure tactics to move the metal is a message manufacturers want to rid themselves of: "Don't come into our dealerships unless you're ready to buy a car." Somewhere along the line, the automotive industry has made its cars seem more important than its customers. That has created buyers who visit showrooms every six or seven years, and who don't necessarily associate with the brand or the product.

Just about every automaker is in one phase or another of a marketing attempt to cultivate a caring image with consumers. And they're using their '96 models to further the process. But first they must establish a character and personality in the marketplace. It's called brand identification.

Keith C. Magee, vice president and general manager of Lincoln-Mercury Div., says "the brand is really the link between your product and the customer. It's how they think about your product."

Mercury has begun a $50 million "brand" campaign, using its flagship '96 Sable, to establish itself as a "major player in the upper-middle segment." General Motors Corp. is in the process of hiring about 35 brand managers this year, who'll create some long-needed, segment-specific images for all of its models. Kia Motors of America has begun a humorous ad campaign, reminiscent of the Volkswagen Beetle, which ends with "it's about time everyone had a well-made car."

And apparently it's working. For the last three years, Chrysler Corp. has run brand advertising for its Dodge Div. "We have moved from 5% to more than 9% of first-choice preference," says Arthur C. (Bud) Leibler, vice president of marketing and communications. "Up until now, we weren't at a point where we felt we could do full-brand spots. But you'll see more for the Chrysler brand, and you'll see some on Plymouth." and you'll see some on Plymouth." Mr. Leibler adds, "If you really build your brand to stand for something and then you deliver, that's what it's all about. You've got to be there consistently." Translation: you have to be who you say you are year in and year out.

Saturn Corp. is the best at it, even turning recalls into reasons for owners to love the company. Credit Roger B. Smith, GM's much maligned former chainnan, for protecting and leaving Saturn alone so the fledgling subsidiary could develop a new way of selling cars. Saturn's "different kind of car company" theme, its folksy advertising and its wildly successful campaign to make customers feel like part of the family is the envy of the industry.

Saturn could re-badge Ford Motor Co.'s failed Edsel and buyers probably would say it's a great car -- because it's a Saturn. That is the essence of brand identification: Loyalty and adulation for what the brand stands for.

"As we developed our marketing strategy, we identified that there was a need to take better care of the customer throughout the shopping, buying and ownership experience," says Donald W. Hudler, Saturn's president. "Our attitude is we'll help you buy a car, rather than we'll sell you a car."

Indeed, Mr. Stockdale found in an LSY study for Oldsmobile that people knew very little about their cars -- after they had bought them. So they created a pilot program last year in which the key was a 24-hour test drive.

In other words, take it home, show it to your wife and neighbors, drive it to work. "Bingo!," he says. "Now the person is making a $25,000 decision on his home turf and the salesperson is working with the consumer to put him in a car that he really likes. Isn't that the objective?"

So Oldsmobile will develop into a customer-caring company, rather than a carcaring one. To make the transition successful, the message has to carry through marketing, advertising and onto the showroom floor. It's got to be real. And as other manufacturers pick up the marketing brand baton, consumers will find themselves being treated a lot better than they're used to.

Next: Leasing and option trends.