Saturn's brand campaign hits the road with $40 mil

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Product-starved Saturn Corp., still a year away from its biggest new-product push ever, is starting its second decade with an estimated $40 million brand campaign.

Pat Henry, national ad manager at Saturn, said the 2001 model year brand push presents Saturn as "a forward-thinking company." The goal is for consumers to realize that the attributes presented in the ads "could only be Saturn," she said.

"We've always been real in our stories and now we're taking that to a new level," Ms. Henry added.

She declined to discuss spending, but Saturn spent $274.7 million in measured media last year, up from $209 million in 1998, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

From its start in 1990, Saturn was billed as "a different kind of car company," known for its customer friendliness. Saturn has remained at or near the top of annual consumer surveys for satisfaction and service.

But Saturn in recent years "was perceived as living off its reputation rather than its product," said Art Spinella, VP at consultancy CNW/Marketing/Research.

That may be because Saturn's parent, General Motors Corp., starved the brand for new products. The brand sold the S-Series line of small cars for nine years, and last summer it added the L-Series' mid-size car and wagon. But the L-Series-dedicated plant in Wilmington, Del., had early production woes that slowed the arrival of the bigger car. Saturn had hoped to sell 200,000 L-Series annually, but slashed production early this year when L-Series sales slumped.

Total Saturn sales through August are up: 194,986 units vs. 159,222 a year ago, according to Automotive News. But sales of the S-Series models, made at Saturn's original plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., slipped to 126,623 units for the first eight months of 2000 from 155,227 a year ago. And although Saturn sold 68,118 L-Series models through August 2000 and 3,902 units a year ago, results have not met expectations.

PRODUCT NOT LIMITED

A Saturn spokeswoman, however, pointed out the brand isn't limited in product, noting it hasn't sold the same car for nine years -- the S-Series coupe, sedan and wagon have all had upgrades over the years. Still, she said "the Saturn brand promise has to be part of our advertising because it tells consumers why we are different. We can't stop communicating the Saturn difference . . . of a no-hassle, no-haggle experience. That's why people shop us."

Saturn is now getting a $1.5 billion investment from GM for new models and plant changeovers, the spokeswoman said. "We're getting four new products over the next four years," she added. They are a sport-utility vehicle, two major redesigns of S-Series' models and an undisclosed fourth vehicle.

The first to arrive will be Saturn's first sport-utility, due in fall 2001. The unnamed sport-utility, to be unveiled Oct. 6 at Miami's auto show, will appear for a few seconds in one of seven new brand TV commercials.

PUBLICIS SPOTS

Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco, developed the campaign. Chris Robb and John Hage are the new senior VP-creative directors leading the work. The first spots and national newspaper ads arrived last week; outdoor is due in mid-October. The push continues through fall and includes four buys per game during National Football League broadcasts.

Both creatives are fans of the agency's past work, which developed Saturn's brand personality, Mr. Robb said. "We wanted to talk about where we are now. We're a bigger company. The car business has changed and so has Saturn."

Voice-over in the spot dubbed "Things That Make Us Saturn" says, "We're not a small company struggling to stay afloat. We're not David and they [competitors] aren't Goliath."

Mr. Robb said he and Mr. Hage "really felt like we were going backward and forward at the same time" since they wanted to duplicate the "very pure" tone of past ads while modernizing the message.

Saturn wanted to hammer home the fact the new L-Series is a second car line with its own dedicated plant, so two spots were filmed in Wilmington, Mr. Robb said. "Consumers knew the Spring Hill plant so well," he said of the Saturnplant that still makes the S-Series.

Only actual plant staffers appear in the Delaware plant spots. Several don't show Saturn cars, Mr. Robb said, because the executions are brand-focused.

Saturn owners were a staple of virtually every TV spot until 1997, but returned to print ads last year.

Publicis & Hal Riney also created four regional TV spots focusing on the L-Series.

WHO'S BUYING?

CNW's new-car buyer studies revealed buyers with Saturn on their consideration lists are also including South Korean importers' Hyundai Motor America and Daewoo Motor America. But several years ago, the shopping list with Saturn included Toyota Motor Sales USA and American Honda Motor Co. "Perceptually, Saturn has gone down a notch and the Koreans have gone up a notch," CNW's Mr. Spinella said.

Ms. Henry disputed CNW's findings. Her brand's research with new Saturn buyers shows either the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla as No. 2 on their lists. She said roughly 75% of S-Series buyers and 55% of L-Series' buyers wouldn't have bought another GM model.

New Jersey Saturn dealer Stuart Lasser said his "business is very good," mainly because the manufacturer is finally offering competitive lease and financing deals. They started earlier this year.

He's looking forward to the new products. "The good news is we're getting a lot of new product; the bad news is it should have been sooner."

Mr. Spinella predicted "Saturn's fortunes probably will turn. As the economy slows down, practical cars become more important."

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