Saturn launches community service initiative

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In March, nearly 600 retailers that own and operate Saturn dealerships, descended on Colorado Springs for the annual National Retailer Business Meeting. The meeting, which is intended to help Saturn dealers gain an understanding of the company's business goals and expectations for the year, was an ideal opportunity for the company to reinforce its brand message and ensure that dealers would bring that message home with them.

This year, Saturn decided to take a different approach to building its brand. In order to reinforce the company's relationship to community and green living, Saturn partnered with Habitat for Humanity to have its dealers build four environmentally conscious homes for the Colorado Springs community. "[Our brand message is] giving back and being able to look at what have you done to make the world better not just [with] products," said Tony Parrottino, national sales promotion manager at Saturn.

"By building homes and doing this event as more a community type of giving back as a cause... that's the whole key to it," he said. "If a brand does not have a cause marketing relationship or a cause identified as part of its brand, it's missing the spirit of the brand. In all cases, a brand has to function as a reflection of humans."

When dealers arrived at the event, they were not told what they would be asked to do. Rather, Parrottino said, "We told them to come dressed in jeans and work clothes. We felt that that's the way we operate: Our guys are always intrigued. What will happen next? [We told them to] dress and be able to work."

After arriving at the event, the dealers were then taken to a Habitat for Humanity site where they were asked to get their hands dirty and frame four houses. The sense of community fostered by the construction was not only between the dealers and Colorado Springs, but between Saturn and its dealers as well.

"It was the emotional connection of us and our dealers working together in a team effort," Parrottino said. "You can do just about anything you set out to do if you work as a team. We were able to frame those four homes in one day. They laid the house out on the floor like a template and we built those walls."

In addition to encouraging the dealers to understand the importance of community to the Saturn brand, the company also reinforced the idea of sustainable living and environmental consciousness. The houses the Saturn team built were not standard Habitat for Humanity structures.

"[The event gave] us a chance to explore the green side of our brand. Saturn is the greenest brand in General Motors," Parrottino said. "Our retailers were emotionally connected with the team build, but more so with the fact that four families were going to be able to have affordable homes and be green. Those homes were going to have high-efficiency furnaces, glass, etc. It's a little bit more money up front, but in the long run itÕs a more affordable home."

Saturn covered the 11% increase in costs for greening the homes. But the price, Parrottino said, was worth it. Dealers were able to take home with them a bonded relationship to the brandÑreceived in a subtle manner.

"You don't have to go out and beat your chest over [reinforcing the brand]," he said. "[Dealers] went home and said to their wife or husband, 'I could have flown with my other franchise. Instead of golfing and being at a resort, you know what I did? I built a home. I did the right thing.' The emotional part of doing something right and giving back [built the brand]."

The event was considered a rousing success. Saturn encouraged its dealers to go back to their communities and get involved, thus continuing to build the brand long after the event was a memory. "It's so simple," Parrottino said. "It's a perfect example that a picture is worth a thousand words. How could I express that over the phone the way we did when we went and built these homes? The event worked out beautifully. It was all about teamwork. How do I get teamwork on an e-mail?"

At least 35 dealers have expressed interest in building homes in their own communitiesÑan interest that Saturn intends to foster. The company will assist its dealers in planning and executing their efforts to give back (and foster brand goals in the process).

"Most of them just need the guidance because they all like to follow the same strategy," Parrottino said. "That's what a good brand does—lays out a confident strategy that every single part of its business community can grab on to. You can build a home just about any place in America. You have to give them a baseline that they all can participate in."
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