MAINSTREAM TACK VS. INTRINSIC UNIQUENESS

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Saab vs. steroids," one headline reads. The reference is to torque-producing turbochargers, as opposed to big-displacement muscle mass of other European performance cars.

"Saab vs. Vivaldi," says another. This is about compatibility with each of the four seasons. "Four Seasons" . . . get it?

"Saab vs. Descartes." This is a tart response to the famed Cartesian assertion cogito, ergo sum, with the carmaker arguing that feeling trumps thinking any time.

Again and again, the new global campaign for Saab frames the eccentric Swedish vehicle in opposition to some convention of the outside world, automotive and otherwise. But in the end, what emerges from this strategically sound but executionally weak campaign from the Martin Agency is a company oddly in conflict with itself.

What this campaign really should be called is "Saab vs. Saab."

Signs of the struggle are everywhere. A year and a half ago, when Saab Cars USA ditched its charming, defining "Find Your Own Road" campaign, and the agency that created it, the move seemed irrational. The quirky ads celebrating automotive iconoclasm had re-established the brand in the U.S. marketplace and sent sales soaring.

Saab, however, found the iconoclasm niche too limiting. For the introduction of the new 9.3 and 9.5 models, it wanted to broaden its scope, enlarge its market.

You know, like VW in the '80s, and Subaru in the early '90s and Mazda in the mid- and late-'90s.

What followed was a forgettable "performance" campaign from the Martin Agency. Spurred by momentum from "Find Your Own Road," introduction of the first new models in many years and unprecedented economic prosperity, sales did nudge upward (and margins more than a nudge). But Saab's quirky Saabness all but disappeared. If the economy were to go south, Saab would be just another formerly successful niche player that "expanded" itself into oblivion.

To the credit of these marketers, they now get this. So now comes the "vs." campaign, which not only recognizes Saab's selling proposition of uniqueness in the U.S., but takes the message global.

A global car campaign! What a preposterous notion-except that, because quirkiness is so intrinsic to the brand, the globalization of this particular niche actually makes some sense. And the "vs." concept is itself so universal in meaning that the usual undoing of a global campaign-the reduction of the selling proposition to a practically meaningless lowest common denominator-is no problem here.

This particular strategic paradox, broadening by narrowing, should work and work well.

That is, once the ads get better.

These, both in print and on TV, are too artsy, too cute, too mannered and-in tortured denial of their own "vs." premise-still too determined to trumpet mainstream attributes.

Torque and feel and safety are all well and good, but Saab's big advantage is still that it looks like nothing else on the road, still screams "INDIVIDUAL," and these ads barely show us the cars. We need to see much more of these intriguing idiosyncratic cars.

Saab may be the equal of Audi, for example, or even BMW. But the marketer shouldn't dwell on it. It should dwell on its inimitable Saabness-for all the many affluent drivers out there who see their auto purchase in simple, powerful terms:

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