Saturn is Lynchpin To GM's Green Imaging

Sure, the company is putting its technical and PR resources behind the Chevy Volt concept. The Volt, for those on Mars, is the plug-in gas-electric car GM debuted at the Detroit auto show last January and vows to have on the road by 2010.

But there is a problem to overcome. Chevy’s passenger car business has very little cred with consumers. As GM’s own research shows, educated, young, women, especially, are down down down on Chevy. The image of Chevy’s passenger car business has been abused for years by GM and its ad agency, Campbell-Ewald. Paging the last two Malibus! (The current one is great by the way). Paging the Cavalier! Paging the Monte Carlo! Paging the Aveo! The current Cobalt is a snooze. The HHR is kind of nifty, but it’s customers tend to be over 40 and male. The car ads have been…lame…for years.

As bullish and hopeful as I am on the Volt (because I want one), I’m betting that GM’s real sleeper opportunity is to build out Saturn with the two-mode hybrids that are coming, and the plug-in that will follow the Volt.

Despite the research that shows Saturn lost a lot of the aspirational qualities it earned in the 90s when it foisted the Ion, LS, Relay and original Vue on us, those reasons for Saturn’s decline were relatively short-lived. The current lineup of products is first class. Sky, Outlook, Vue, Aura and Astra (coming in January). That’s a pretty showroom.

And Saturn is a brand that can, I believe, be quickly repositioned to attract more of the following audiences: teachers and professors (educated and influential…the VW Beetle was big with this crowd), middle-income, educated, women; college students and new grads; and a group I'll call "Conscientious Dads."

This brings me to something of a retraction, or maybe it is a sort-of-apology. About a year ago, I blogged on Saturn after they dismissed their ad agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. I dealt some pretty salty crackers to Saturn brand chief Jill Lajdziak, asserting that she and her team had not learned to work with a first-class ad agency, and that she was on the verge of squandering her opportunity to make good with a first-rate product lineup.

A year later, I have some different thoughts. I still think Lajdziak should feel a great deal of pressure to improve Saturn’s numbers following the year-ago lame launch of the Aura. Don’t you think Pontiac, for example, would like to have a lineup this good? But what is clear to me after seeing Goodby’s work for Hyundai so far is that maybe this agency, which does so many things so well, simply has trouble with a car.

In other words, as Jeff Goodby himself told me, I probably laid too much of the blame for a confused Saturn marketing strategy the last few years on the Saturn client. The agency clearly has “issues:” with cars. It’s no sin. Wieden and Kennedy, a great agency, has steered clear of car accounts in the U.S. for many years because of the trouble they can be for some agencies. Wieden, which does great work for Honda in the U.K., famously bombed with Subaru in the U.S.

It’s end of year clearance time, and Goodby and Hyundai have gone back to the “Duh” sales event ads that it broke in the summer as its first work for Hyundai. Sorry…as much as I admire this agency, this work is utterly lame. And the high-minded stuff Goodby broke a few months ago, while interesting, is a little too ethereal for me at a time when Hyundai needs to make more of an impression on a skittish car buying public. I just drove a $38,000 Hyundai Veracruz. Nice car. But I aint spending no $38,000 for a Hyundai. Simple as that. Not until this brand figures out something clear and discernible to stand for.

So, back to Saturn. The “Rethink American” line that launched a few months ago from Deutsch/LA, didn’t thrill me. But what wasn’t clear then is that the line is really just “Rethink.” Saturn has been running ads that are tagged “Rethink Saturn.” What I like about this strategy is that it allows Deutsch/LA and Saturn an open template to deliver some potentially cool messages connected to Saturn. One can imagine ads tagged “Rethink Fuel Economy.” Rethink Marriage” “Rethink…Your Choices.” "Rethink Your Place." It could be a copywriter's dream.

"Re-thinking" is a very provocative idea today. Heading into the election season next year—an election that is wide open—the public is going to be rethinking a lot about the country, their lives, what they believe and what they prioritize. Saturn can message into that storm of national conversation.

If they play it right, more consumers will cast their votes for a pretty cool brand that temporarily lost its way.

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