Saturn Comes Back Down To Earth

After sporty new ads fell flat with buyers, GM's no-nonsense offshoot is stressing the basics

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The conventional wisdom at General Motors Corp. (GM ) used to be that its beloved but struggling Saturn brand only needed a few decent new cars, and the customers would come. Last October, as GM prepared to launch its Aura sedan and Outlook SUV--both critically acclaimed in the automotive press--the company rolled out ads showing how well the sedan drove. One TV spot featured the Aura gliding through hairpin turns.

Then, two weeks into the campaign, Saturn yanked the ads. Internal surveys had shown that the BMW-like imagery wasn't resonating with buyers. After all, Saturn fans have long cared less about horsepower and handling than about the haggle-free selling and friendly service that the brand always stood for. "The emotional connection with Saturn is security and trust," says Daniel Gorrell, president of AutoStrategem, a marketing consultancy in Tustin, Calif. "You can't suddenly say it's about excitement."

Consider it a lesson learned. Now Saturn has two big challenges. It has to overcome a reputation for offering only cheap compact cars. The Aura, for all the plaudits it has won, sells at one-sixth the rate of the Camry, its rival at Toyota Motor Corp. (TM ) And Saturn has to convince buyers that it remains true to its original "different kind of company" motto. "We're peeling back the onion to see what's core to our brand," says Saturn general manager Jill A. Lajdziak.

Like many companies, Saturn lost touch with its original vision. When sales tanked in the late 1990s, Saturn and its ad agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, tried several new marketing ploys. The "People First" campaign showed how the cars were designed around passengers. Last year, GM focused on the performance of the cars, some engineered with German sister company Opel (GM ).

When none of that worked, Saturn fired the agency in January. Eric Hirshberg, the chief creative officer of the automaker's new ad agency, Deutsche/LA, saw a simple solution: "We needed to go back to the original philosophy, just with a different tone."

Saturn's new "Rethink" campaign is Deutsche's answer. One TV ad shows a bodybuilder, then flashes to the wiry cycling champion Lance Armstrong. "Rethink strength" is the message. The spot ends with shots of the new models and exhorts consumers to "Rethink American." Back in the day, Saturn managed to get consumers to take a second look at GM compacts amid a sea of pint-size Japanese imports. Now it's trying to get drivers to think about American cars, period.

Saturn dealers are largely responsible for maintaining the brand's reputation for customer service. (Yes, they still hold parties for new customers.) But they needed to come up with new tactics to do so. Saturn didn't want to reinvent the wheel: It looked to other companies for ideas. Taking a cue from Toyota's hip Scion brand, Saturn built a chat room staffed 24/7 by product geeks who answer queries from prospective buyers. Inspired by the Pepsi (PEP ) Challenge of the 1980s, Saturn persuaded dealers to let potential buyers test-drive a Camry or Honda (HMC ) Accord; the sell doesn't get much softer than that. And as part of an ongoing refurbishment of its stores, Saturn borrowed Apple's "genius bar" concept, installing a birch-wood bar where customers can belly up and get the lowdown on the cars.

Lajdziak says that since Saturn launched "Rethink" and the test drives, Web traffic is up 50%, to 1.5 million visitors a month. Auto shopping Web site says import buyers are at least considering a Saturn. Still, the company will probably sell roughly 260,000 cars this year, up from last year but 26,000 fewer than its peak in 1994, when it had just one model. Lajdziak acknowledges the challenge, but notes that "it's a credit to our [customer service] that our brand has been left standing."

By David Welch

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