RAYONG, Thailand - Opel is playing a diminished role in GM's worldwide operations as Chevrolet becomes the company's major brand in Asia.
Opel at one time was promoted as GM's global brand, the spearhead of the auto giant's push into developing markets around the world. Now, under Bob Hendry's direction in Europe, Opel is trying to sharpen its image as a strong German brand, and not necessarily a mainstream brand for export markets.
'We see Chevrolet as a great brand to use here' in Asia, said GM Chairman John Smith, Jr. 'It could be a lot stronger,' he conceded, but 'we have to develop it.'
The move shows how GM's brand strategy is changing, in line with a shift in GM's product strategy for the region. GM has abandoned its former policy of trying to export cars from North America and Europe to Asia, in favor of building cars in Asia, often with its stable of local affiliates, for Asian markets.
In Thailand, for example, GM dropped the Opel brand when the Zafira compact minivan began rolling off the Rayong plant's line in May. A GM dealership in Bangkok that carried Opel signage as recently as July now is exclusively Chevrolet.
Several factors led to Opel's diminished role.
First was a rebellion at Opel headquarters in summer 1997. Opel engineers at the time complained that they were spending too much time on Opel's international assignments and neglecting their home European market.
Second was the broader nature of the Chevrolet brand. Opel was German engineering. Chevy, in contrast, stands for 'value, reliability, good aftersales service, good styling, and, in Thailand, prestige,' said William Botwick, president of General Motors (Thailand) Ltd.
'If you look around the world, the Chevrolet brand is more global than Opel,' said Botwick. For example, the Opel Corsa is sold in Mexico and across Latin America as the Chevrolet Corsa.
Third was a change in GM's product strategy for Asia. After decades of trying, and largely failing, to sell North American cars in Asia, GM changed its strategy. Now, it plans to supply Asian markets with vehicles it builds in Asia, either at its own plants such as Rayong or one in Shanghai, China, or at plants run by its affiliates Isuzu Motors Ltd., Suzuki Motor Corp., and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.
Opel won't disappear in Asia. In several key markets, notably Japan, it remains a strong and viable brand, standing for highly engineered German vehicles.