Robert Baird Jr. never walked into a Cadillac dealership before he accepted the position of brand manager for Seville and Eldorado early this this

That was exactly the point. Maybe someone weaned on imported cars, but trained in the art of distinguishing one brand of skin cream, suntan lotion or soap from another, could come up with the secret potion that could pull those affluent baby boomers into General Motors Corp.'s premier luxury marque.

Mr. Baird recently went on to a bigger job at Samsonite Corp. in Denver, but brand management appears to be here to stay at GM. The newcomers like Mr. Baird and his wife, Lisa, who is brand manager for the Pontiac Grand Am, have grown accustomed to the jokes about the incongruity of peddling cars in the same ways as shampoo, pet food or cookies. But they and a new generation of GM managers are now the A-team. The divisional general managers, those quintessential "car guys" who knew how to move the metal and keep dealers happy, are gradually blending into the background.

Indeed, the divisions themselves are no longer sacred. Last winter's merger of Pontiac-GMC has only fanned speculation that another consolidation is on the horizon. The official word is no. Each of the 35 brand managers and their teams work jointly with the 13 vehicle line executives (VLEs) in bringing each product to market.

In short, brand managers define a target group of buyers for each vehicle, relentlessly research what those buyers want, and see that the car, truck van satisfies those needs If sales and market share rise, they get paid more. If a car bombs, there's no bonus for the brand manager or the VLE. The 1997 model year marks the debut of this grand new scheme crafted by former GM Chairman John G. Smale and Ronald L. Zarrella, the former Bausch & Lomb president who was named GM's executive vice president for North American marketing in December 1994.

While it may astound gearhead traditionalists to see cars sold with the same philosophy as cereal or toilet paper, perhaps the bigger surprise is that it has taken Detroit so long to get with the brand building program. "The auto industry is about 15 years late, maybe 20," says David A. Aaker, a professor of marketing at the University of California-Berkeley. "Alfred Sloan understood brands. He was a genius at it. Then GM kind of lost it somewhere in the '70s. They came up with all those cars that looked alike."

Says Rajeev Batra, University of Michigan associate professor of marketing, "There is much more competition in the market. Consumers have become overwhelmed with choices. If you have no special reason why a consumer will come to you instead of someone else, then why are you making the product ?"

Indeed, the Sloanian paradigm that GM would produce a car for every purse and purpose is very close to what Mr. Zarrella is drumming into his troops.

If it takes a few outsiders to help convey the message, so be it. Several of them, including the Bairds, completed their brand management catechism while working at Procter & Gamble Co., Smale's alma mater -- he was P&G's CEO in the mid-1980s.

"P&G just beats into you an understanding of consumer needs and finding ways to draft a message that will draw them into a product," says Mr. Baird. "We have to redefine the benefit people get when they drive a Cadillac."

Each vehicle is supposed to reach a specific customer need. The customer needs are defined by Vincent P. Barabba, a former political pollster and one-time Census Bureau official who is GM's chief market researcher. For example, the Pontiac Grand Prix is targeted at the midsize car buyer who needs a sporty, expressive design with aggressive performance, while the Chevrolet Malibu is more family oriented, emphasizing affordability and function.

Altogether, Mr. Barabba identifies 19 needs segments for cars and 14 for trucks.

But even those charged with carrying out their company's vision of brand management are wrestling with what it really means.

Sharper advertising? What's wrong with "Like a Rock," "Built Ford Tough" or "Pontiac: We Build Excitement?"

Reinforce the vehicle's image? Well, isn't that why Chevy's Monte Carlo, Pontiac's Grand Prix thunderbird duke it out each Sunday on the NASCAR circuit?

Brand management is all that, plus much more. It's about getting the Cadillac Catera, Seville and Eldorado on the radar screens of all those 30-somethings climbing corporate ladders everywhere. It's about reminding the young family struggling to make ends meet that a Chevrolet Malibu is within its budget even if a Lumina is not. It's about not aiming a Buick Park Avenue and an Olds Aurora at the same customer.

Philip Guarascio, head of GM's North American marketing and advertising, says that "we'd like the brand character of the Pontiac Grand Prix to mean essentially the same to you as it will to your grandchildren 25 years from now."

But what happens when the goal is to reach out to a new group of customers, which is what GM must do if it is to reverse the loss of more than 10 points of market share over the last 12 years?

Perhaps the biggest challenge is at Oldsmobile, which is reinventing its product lineup and trying to facelift its brand image in the process. Soon gone will be such traditional models at the 98, 88 and Ciera. In their place will be an import-fighting Cutlass and a slightly larger Intrigue. The Silhouette minivan is completely new this fall, too.

Says John D. Rock, Olds general manager. "It's difficult to walk away from your traditional buyers and into a new segment where not only the competition is extremely tough, but customers are asking `Why you?'"

Although its brand thrust is hardly a secret, GM remains touchy about the subject. Mr. Zarrella, for example, declined an interview for this story. But the gist of his strategy. according to several brand managers, is simply to re-establish what each product stands for in the public mind. No more Lumina as a car and Lumina as a minivan, for example.

Another goal is to eliminate the overlap between, say, a Pontiac Grand Prix, an Olds Intrigue and a Buick Century--even when they share mechanical underpinnings.

"We're going to focus more on a functional value rather than being a technology leader," says former Buick chief engineer Anthony H. Derhake, now brand manager for the 1997 Buick Century. "We emphasize interior space with bench-seating, a column shifter and a higher roof line.

The Grand Prix is aimed at the sports sedan enthusiast who wants a more aggressive performance. The Intrigue will target Toyota Camry and Honda Accord owners.

Strong brands, in theory, mean people value the name highly enough that they are willing to pay the price the manufacturer puts on the product. But when three dozen Chevrolet dealers saturate one metropolitan area, sooner or later one of them will start undercutting the others. Mr. Zarrella has said that GM hopes to trim its dealer body by 20% over the next decade through consolidation, attrition and relocation.

Then there are advertising budgets that run into the hundreds of millions annually, thrown into an increasingly fragmented media environment where it becomes harder to know who is watching or reading.

Mr. Zarrella has said he wants to even out advertising support for a given vehicle over its marketing life, rather than front-loading advertising in the first nine months, then stopping it completely in the third or fourth year. What might be saved in advertising through that traditional approach is often lost in rebates.

The outsiders may have drawn most of the media attention in Mr. Zarrella's brand-management crusade, but 29 of 35 key people have spent most or all their careers at GM.

Buick's Mr. Derhake, for example, went from overseeing development of every Buick model as chief engineer to focusing on just the Century. He now spends at least as much time talking about media buys and ad themes as he does discussing the finer points of four-wheel independent suspension.

"I have always been a proponent of having one strong voice on the engineering side, which we have with the vehicle line executive, and one single person to lead the marketing effort, which is my job," says Mr. Derhake. "This is a different assignment, but I'm having fun with it."

Silhouette brand manager Michael McEnaney, who is also responsible for the Bravada sport/utility, is Oldsmobile's outsider, having come from Ralcorp, where he was responsible for Wheat Chex, Rice Chex, Branx Chex cereals and snacks.

"Marketing is marketing. There may be different levels of technicality and different degrees of consumer involvement, but it still boils down to defining the consumers' needs and designing a product that addresses those needs," says Mr. McEnaney. "That's no different whether it's dog food, cereal, computers or cars."

But Mr. Baird's sudden exit illustrates the biggest risk of GM's conscious effort to integrate non-automotive marketing talent into its brand-management strategy. Once you have them, how do you keep them?

Will newcomers who built their reputations in other industries stick with the process, knowing that their best answer to the targeted consumer needs is still three years from the market?

Frankly it's too early to declare that brand management is either a misguided fad or an enduring breakthrough. But the change in style is unmistakable.

Mr. Rock epitomizes the old GM marketing culture with his irreverent South Dakota wit and his disarming ability to schmooze. Today he shares the spotlight with Mr. McEnaney and other brand managers, some of whom were barely old enough to drive when he was working his way up the ranks at Buick and GMC.

He wears bolo ties and cowboy boots. They wear short-sleeve knit shirts and khakis. He remembers when Olds sold more than 1 million units a year. They are steeped in the language of customer needs and brand equity. Together they are fighting to save the oldest enduring nameplate in the American automobile industry. It won't happen overnight.

"The new process is right," Mr. Rock says, with a mixture of resignation and optimism. "It's a concept we've been eating around the edges of that we should have done a long time ago."