With Opel posting rising car sales last year and set to break even this year after years of heavy losses, the full story of how General Motors' European division managed to reverse its fortunes would not be complete without mentioning the pivotal role played by one executive: marketing chief Tina Mueller.
Opel had become in Germany something akin to Morris in the UK or Oldsmobile in the U.S. – a domestic brand everyone grew up with, but no one wanted to be seen owning. While it was perfectly acceptable to drive a Volkswagen in the fashionable neighborhoods of Munich, Hamburg or Frankfurt, having an Opel parked in your driveway was considered socially shameful by comparison.
"There was a kind of invisible wall of prejudice between the product and those that were supposed to buy it, so the most important task was [fixing] the brand," said Julia Jaekel, CEO of German publisher Gruener + Jahr, referring to the stigma that Opel drivers are "Prolls," a derogatory word in Germany that comes closest to the term "white trash."
Enter Mueller, a marketing executive in charge of Henkel's Schwarzkopf brand of hair products. An industry outsider, she was hired in August 2013 to restore luster to the brand's signature lightning bolt logo.
Jumping to a company in such dire state as Opel at that time took a certain reckless regard for one's career, but fortunately for the GM unit Henkel barred her from joining a rival German cosmetics company – a labor conflict Mueller took all the way to court.
Headhunted then by Opel, Mueller recounted recently the words of her father after telling him she was considering taking a job as marketing boss: "Child, you can’t do that, the company is bankrupt."
But she disagreed, deciding she wanted help try to turn around "a brand so rich in tradition that for such a long time was on the decline," Mueller said in Frankfurt two weeks ago.