Brand managers, once the darlings of General Motors Corp., are fewer in ranks there. Meanwhile, the automaker is realigning its dealership field team and refocusing its branding efforts back to individual car divisions.

GM has reduced the number of brand managers overseeing product lines from 39 to 31.

The remaining brand managers will line up more with vehicle line executives — the managers who oversee the full scope of development, production and marketing for individual GM makes and models.

But as a marketing tool, branding remains important at GM, especially in positioning its divisions — Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac GMC, Chevrolet, Saturn and, for now, Oldsmobile — in the marketplace.

“The brand is the division,” says John Middlebrook, a GM marketing vice president. “At the end of the day, we've got to drive traffic to the store, and the store is where the divisional name is displayed.”

GM first embraced brand management in the early 1990s as a way to define what individual nameplates — or “brands” — stand for and demographically whom they appeal to. The goal is to create brand appeal and a loyal audience. Part of that involves knowing target consumers' wants, needs and lifestyles.

Ron Zarrella spearheaded brand management at GM as head of North American operations. He imported it from Bausch and Lomb, a maker of eye-care products. He's now back there as CEO.

His departure from GM doesn't mean brand management is dead in Detroit.

“Are we abandoning brand management?” says John F. Smith, GM's vice president of field sales, service and parts. “That's not what's happening.”

Meanwhile, GM's field organization is getting more division-specific, too.

In 1998, the automaker switched to a unified field organization, in contrast to five separate divisional sales forces maintaining contact with dealers.

That's been changed to a system that's more like the old setup in some regards.

The latest field staff realignment involves “tracking back to local zone managers,” says Smith. “We're getting the focus back on the divisions.”