Interaction over impressions

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Debra Kelly-Ennis, president of Saab Cars USA, spoke at a recent Advertising Women of New York breakfast about building a niche car brand in a big global market

Saab, a small Swedish company, is one of only two global GM brands. Saab vehicles are sold in more than 60 markets around the world. But the U.S. is still Saab's largest and most important market, accounting for roughly one-third of Saab's global sales.

Looking back at 2003, I think it was a good, solid year for the automobile business, especially considering some of the economic uncertainties we faced through most of the year.

When all was said and done, the industry finished with sales of about 16.7 million cars and light trucks. And that's a pretty good year in anyone's book.

At Saab Cars USA, 2003 was more than just a pretty good year. We had the best year in our 47-year history in the U.S. market. We set an all-time retail sales record with 47,914 cars sold by our dealers, a 27% improvement over 2002. We also increased our certified pre-owned sales a whopping 124% and parts & accessories were up a full 10%.

Saab is in the early stages of the most prolific period of new product introductions in its history. Over half of the new products we'll introduce in the coming months will take Saab into new and growing segments. We've just introduced our first all-wheel drive car, the Saab 9-2X.

Early next year we will launch our first SUV. We'll be introducing the 9-3 Sport-Hatch late next year. And [in July] we announced an all-new product collaboration with Fuji Heavy Industries [Subaru's parent, 20% owned by GM] which will bring Saab a highly competitive, high performance, cross-over utility vehicle.

too many choices

But success is more than simply having a great product. The automotive landscape has changed: Great products alone aren't enough anymore. Customers have almost too many choices. And that's a challenge if you're trying to get them to buy yours.

It used to be that TV was the answer. You focused on impressions-the number of eyeballs you could get to watch your commercial.

TV is still a key component to an overall robust marketing plan, but to get your money's worth out of TV and most other media, you have to make sure you cut through the clutter. Especially for a brand like Saab with awareness that is still quite low nationally and budgets that are a small fraction of those our competitors have to work with, it is absolutely essential that we find ways to cut through the clutter.

We're using a number of methods to cut through the clutter. Firstly, we're using a consistent and very memorable launch color for our all-new 9-3 convertible called "lime yellow." This is the perfect kind of color to launch a new convertible. It has certainly been memorable from an advertising perspective but has also helped us generate more positive PR for our new convertible than we would have otherwise.

We are also showing our new 9-2X in print ads upside-down and utilizing the Velcro theme in launch TV spots to emphasize the performance advantages of standard all-wheel-drive traction capabilities.

Our reality has changed. There are so many more products today and so fewer opportunities for mass communication that we have to go to consumers on a more one-to-one basis. It's not about impressions any longer. It's taking the customer by the hand and demonstrating why your product is the best choice for them.

Mercedes-Benz did that when it took the 2000 M-Class on a 10-city tour allowing potential customers to drive it on three different test tracks.

Saab has been reaching customers in this way since 2001 with programs like our Real-Life Road Test and Saab Proving Grounds. At these events, we've taken a sampling of our cars to selected businesses, malls or special events. At each venue, we encourage people to take the cars for a drive or compare them head-to-head with our competition.

GM has taken this concept to a much larger level with the GM 24-Hour Test Drive. They lent out more than a half-million vehicles for overnight test-drives in the latter half of last year. But the truly impressive thing-in addition to actually getting most of the vehicles back-is that they sold almost 190,000 vehicles to those people. That's a closing rate of almost 35%-more than one out of every three customers. Show me a television commercial or print ad that has that kind of closing rate.

Our reality has to be about more than impressions. We have to engage potential customers at ever-increasing levels. We're seeing more and more of these programs from many different carmakers because we've all discovered the same thing: Quality impressions are the ones that really count.

This is the wave of the future. It's not all about who has the biggest advertising budget. It's about who's being heard and who's reaching potential customers.

quality interactions

Are these impressions more expensive? You bet. But again, it's higher quality interactions and stronger relationships that are deciding the winners and losers in the marketplace. The companies that connect with customers the best will attract new and repeat business. Miss the mark too often, and you've lost your customer for good. Mainstream America is changing, and we have to change, too.

Today's reality isn't stay-at-home moms and dads in neckties. To be successful, we need to push beyond our traditional markets, which is why connecting with the growing populations of Hispanics, Asian-Americans, African-Americans and gay Americans is so important.

Last year, GM gained 1.3 share points with those groups, which is essential to our growth now and in the future.

The old marketing model-with mass media and mass products, based on quantity of impressions-made a lot of sense. The only problem with it is that it stopped working sometime around 1987.

The new model is diversity-in 3D: diversity of customers; diversity of products; diversity of media. This new model emphasizes the quality of impressions because every time we can get people in our vehicles, we know we have the best chance of capturing them as a customer.

It won't necessarily be the brands with the largest ad budgets able to buy the most impressions that win in the future in this highly competitive industry. The winners will be the brands that utilize whatever resources they do have in the smartest possible way to make a higher quality impact on potential buyers.

About the author

Debra Kelly-Ennis is president of General Motors Corp.'s Saab Cars USA. She joined GM in 1999 as brand manager for Chevrolet S-10 pickups and was the last general manager of GM's now-defunct Oldsmoble.

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