Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer has prepared set after set to sell consumers. Saturn dealers are proving that buddies make for better relationships with car owners. Spots from Hal Riney & Partners tend to reinforce the feeling. The Harley Owners Group remains the most loyal set of owners on two wheels. VOLVO, SATURN CULTIVATE THEIR CULT FOLLOWING HARD TO DEVELOP, BUT WORTH THE PAYOFF DOWN THE ROAD

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For carmakers, there's nothing like a cult following to fortify customer loyalty in a fickle market.

Unfortunately, getting a cult to germinate isn't an easy trick. And even then, converting it into retail sales is delicate business.

Although clubs are few and far between among marketers, three marques are getting plenty of mileage out of their current cults-especially when it comes to consumer loyalty.

Volvos have captured buyers for years with their reputation for durability and safety. But in 1990, Volvo Cars of North America created its own owners' club of sorts to capitalize on it.

The Volvo Saved My Life Club pulled real-life names and stories out of the company's files of car owners who had survived a wreck, and who-on their own initiative-wrote letters to credit Volvo with saving their lives.

Volvo sought permission and then tastefully turned the testimonies into TV commercials and print ads from Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, New York, and also stocked its retailers with signs and brochures to draw attention to the club-but not to overdo it.

The materials show smiling, happy family scenes, mothers laughing with their children, a father and son shooting basketball, and reveal the survivor's name with the date of the accident.

A tag line then explains that everyone shown believes that "a car saved their lives."

"It's good for loyalty, but it's a frightening way to develop business," says Bob Austin, the Volvo director of marketing communications who started the program.

The ad materials encourage owners to write in with their own similar experiences. Dealers award participants with a diploma, and the company puts out a press releases on new members.

"We're not talking big money," Mr. Austin says. "But boy, these people will never drive another car."

Helen Capo, a club member from El Segundo, Calif., seconds that motion.

Ms. Capo and her husband survived a smash-up with a truck in 1988, and wrote the carmaker to credit Volvo with their survival.

"I'm now totally loyal to Volvo," Ms. Capo says. "Had we been in another vehicle, we wouldn't be here today. It's a real deep commitment."

After the wreck, the Capos immediately bought a replacement Volvo. And while husband Ralph currently drives a Chevrolet Blazer, the couple is planning to sell that vehicle to buy a second Volvo, in addition to replacing Helen's Volvo with a new model.

Cults aren't limited to foreign makes, though. Marketing executives at General Motors Corp.'s Saturn subsidiary are cautiously fanning a fire of consumer hoopla that greeted the car's debut this decade.

This summer, Saturn will invite its 700,000 current and projected owners to a "homecoming" at its Spring Hill, Tenn., plant. Company officials believe as many as 70,000 owners may actually come for the event, many seeking a taste of the American-value mystique the car's advertising has helped create.

Saturn is organizing the gathering and assisting travelers with hotel recommendations.

The plant will be open for tours and workers will be on hand for conversations. Saturn is providing entertainment and down-home cooking. Dealers along the way are serving refreshments and solving travel problems.

"Our philosophy is that if you treat people right, if you're friendly, if people have a positive experience with you, they will like you, and maybe they'll tell other people about you," explains Don Hudler, Saturn's VP-sales & marketing. Word of mouth recommendations figure high on buyers' list of reasons why they bought a Saturn, he adds.

Mr. Hudler says the company has learned Saturn clubs are sprouting in a few cities. But the automaker isn't getting involved in them.

"It adds credibility if it comes from the grassroots," he says. "But it's good business. It pays off."

Another domestic nameplate, motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson, with its own die-hard owners club, hosted a similar homecoming last year for its 90th anniversary.

More than 66,000 people showed up, paying $25 a ticket to see the factory, hear rock bands ZZ Top and Steppenwolf, parade on a closed-off highway and participate in four days of Harley events.

Consumer passion for Harleys, partly fueled by an owners club with 200,000 members and a 68% annual membership renewal rate, has helped keep the marketer on top of its field. Harley owns 63% of the U.S. market for motorcycles with engines larger than 850 cubic centimeters.

But for some marques, clubs haven't created huge sales gains.

High-end cars like Ferrari and Corvette have been the object of cult adulation for decades, but the enthusiasm makes little difference in sales from year to year.

Enthusiasts in Italy sport Corvette jackets and collect paraphernalia of the American sports car, despite the fact that General Motors never exported the car there.

GM has been passively supportive of Corvette fan clubs-never ignoring them but never running the show for them, either.

Officials at GM's Chevrolet division lend their presence and their factory parking lot to the enthusiasts for events.

And last year, the company chipped in some corporate man-hours, but no money, to help fans launch a Corvette museum project in Bowling Green, Ky., where Corvettes are manufactured.

All of this has done little for Corvette's U.S. sales over the last decade, which are down by about half.

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