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DaimlerChrysler quietly accelerates Web strategy

General Motors may have announced a flashy new Internet unit, but rival DaimlerChrysler is working behind the scenes to rev up its own online presence.

General Motors may have stolen the limelight today with the announcement of a flashy new Internet unit, but rival DaimlerChrysler is working behind the scenes to rev up its own Web strategy.

The automaker said today it has hired San Francisco-based Internet services company Organic to build Web sites that will connect the manufacturer to its customers and dealers. The move comes at a time when most automakers are scrambling to scale their online marketing strategies, emphasizing both branding and relationships with customers.

Indeed, General Motors today boosted its commitment to the Web, introducing a new Internet unit called e-GM. Headed by Mark T. Hogan, the company's vice president of small car operations, E-GM will concentrate on building electronic shopping malls that will offer customers real-time sales and car-buying information.

Meanwhile, DaimlerChrysler's hiring of Organic is part of its "Customer Connect" program, a $500 million technology push that includes building a network of Web sites that connect customers to Dodge, Chrysler, Plymouth, and Jeep dealers worldwide.

Branding is particularly crucial for DaimlerChrysler, formerly Daimler-Benz and Chrysler, which announced a $38 billion mega-merger last September. Since then, the company has worked to market a product line that now offers everything from the budget subcompact to minivans to the swanky Mercedes line.

To date, DaimlerChrysler's Internet presence has been limited to a Get-a-Quote program, which consumers have used since January to retrieve information online about vehicle availability and price.

Organic's CEO Jonathan Nelson said the company intends to expand DaimlerChrysler's capabilities beyond simple information retrieval to better use of software systems that manage customer inquiries, requests for support, and orders.

"A true customer relationship is not just hooking up with a bunch of databases," Nelson said. "Clearly ]DaimlerChrysler] has got serious issues in how the brands are working together."

Organic has staffed an office in Detroit with 100 employees devoted to the project. Andersen Consulting and IBM Global Services are also working on the project, though Organic is the lead consulting firm on the Internet end of the project, Nelson said.