I always thought brand marketing was invented for relatively cheapto-make products that were basically all alike, which sold for big prices -- soap, breakfast cereal, toothpaste, cigarettes, things like that.

The stuff would cost 20 cents to make -- packaging included -- and sell for $2.70, so the manufacturers spent $2 on advertising/marketing and split 50 cents profit with the retailer.

Because the merchandise was pretty much alike (they call them "parity products" I'm told), you hired lots of hucksters to make the soap or the toothpaste seem special (with USP, or unique selling propositions)-you know, rugged cowboys sold cigarettes so we'd think we were rugged if we puffed.

Cuties with big smiles sold toothpaste so the girls would think they would be sexy if they brushed right. And if you wanted to swing a baseball bat like the big guy, you ate Wheaties.

They talked about image, about designing the product for those special folks, and about making the users feel special. That was brand marketing, or at least that's what it seemed to be to me.

But cars were different. If the product was good, really good, the brand image was built into it. You didn't have to tell people who the VW Beetle was for, or the Ford Mustang, or the Chevy Corvette, or the '57 Chevy, or the Chrysler minivan, or any BMW. When you saw it, you knew what it was and who it was for; the image was branded into the product.

I recall Francois Castaing, Chrysler Corp.'s top engineer, saying this (I actually read it in a speech he made a year ago, but it made a big impression. Imagine Francois' French accent for the full effect):

"In some industries with little or no product differentiation, processes like advertising or merchandising may be more critical. Imagine an engineer's view of product creation at Kellogg as he adds three more raisins to a box of bran flakes every other year! Marketing is probably a more important process in this example."

Suddenly, every carmaker is into brand image and brand marketing and brand management. General Motors Corp. is making a cult of it, but Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler, and the foreigners are into it, too. I keep wondering if they are adding three more raisins and lots of advertising.

I recall seeing a GM brand pitch a while back. It seemed to me that all the people in the Pontiac ads wore Spandex and they jumped around a lot. The Oldsmobile people were Mom and Dad and Junior and Sandi, and golly, they are Family Values USA with all those smiles. The Buick ads seemed to be some older guy, distinguished with a full head of gray hair and a golf bag, while his attractive wife wore some kind of tennis/golf outfit with a baseball cap. If the ads weren't exactly like this, it's how I remember them.

But the cars were basically the same GM cars. Only the ads were different.

I don't mean to pick on GM. I remember a Chrysler presentation recently where the only thing on the car that seemed different was the Chrysler brand emblem. That emblem really grows in the '97 model year, and it sprouts wings, too. The old round Chrysler emblem, revived from the '20s, was about an inch and a half across. With wings, it must be 8 ins. across on the '97 coupe. The car still has a no-punch engine, but boy, has the brand identification grown.

My friend, Fred Mackerodt (he's a New York PR type who has worked for GM among others), was at the famous "what are-we-supposed-to-be-doing" weekend staged by the Pontiac gang back in the early 1980s. He put it this way:

"They (meaning GM) are definitely on the right track because one person (the brand manager) has his ass tied to that vehicle from concept to the end of its life cycle-all aspects of it." One guy. What if he's not that good? "There will be good ones and bad ones, but if the right person isn't doing the job, it will be easy to see." Fred observes. "But the ceiling won't be falling in after the guy leaves the job."

We talked about that Pontiac meeting, from which eventually came the slogan, "We Build Excitement." But it wasn't just slogans. They built cars to go with it, like the STE and the Fiero.

GM has had a tendency to look for a single answer during recent decades (robots will solve the quality problem, front-wheel-drive will solve the car problems, EDS to get rid of all paperwork, reorganization to get rid of the people who always passed the buck).

One analyst figures it will take GM a few years to discover that it doesn't make any difference.

The point is, building a brand identity is swell. But it should be right there in the product to start with, because the people who create the product know what they're doing; they have a feel for the product.

But if it's simply adding three more raisins to the bran flakes and then piling' the manure, it won't do the trick.