Losing Its Brand Soul: How Saturn Blew Its Advantage

Why Automaker Is Moving $190 Million Ad Account to Deutsch

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DETROIT (AdAge.com) -- In November, Ad Age's Bob Garfield hooted down Goodby, Silverstein & Partners' campaign for the Saturn Aura, saying "there hardly seems to be another
Saturn, which found its initial success as a customer-friendly brand, has strayed far from that essence. Its sales peaked in 1994.
Saturn, which found its initial success as a customer-friendly brand, has strayed far from that essence. Its sales peaked in 1994.
explanation, other than maybe absolute surrender to the client's worst instincts, to shed light on why an agency of this caliber would have produced a generic TV commercial."

He couldn't have been more right.

Branding mistake
The blame for the $190 million Saturn business being moved to Deutsch, Los Angeles, can't be laid entirely at the feet of the agency. It has to be pinned on the marketer, which made the mistake of losing its brand soul.

Saturn's founders, who have since left GM, knew something the automaker has forgotten, said Jim Sanfilippo, exec VP of auto consultant AMCI. "They proved that the pillars of the purchase and owner experience could sustain a weaker-than-competitive product for a long time."

Indeed, when Saturn launched in 1990 as one-of-a-kind, customer-friendly brand -- an image crafted with folksy ads from Publicis & Hal Riney that touted the automaker as "a different kind of car company" -- it was a positioning born of necessity, since the product-starved brand had little else to talk about. But that effort has since been recognized as one of the classic campaigns of all time, distancing Saturn from the cold corporate image of its parent, General Motors, and creating a warm, customer-centric image of a brand born in bucolic Spring Hill, Tenn.

Sales peaked in 1994
Saturn sales climbed, hitting their zenith in 1994 at 286,003 units, according to Automotive News.

But over the years, Saturn strayed purposely from its core communication. In 2002, the year it tapped Goodby to succeed Riney, Saturn General Manager Jill Lajdziak said the brand "doesn't have a sustaining strategy if it focuses on the retail experience. ... We have to make sure people love our product as much as the experience."

Sales began tanking. When the Omnicom Group shop took on the account, unit sales stood at 280,248. They fell to 271,157 in 2003 and plunged further in 2004 to 212,017 -- the brand's worst performance since 1992.

Spending, too, was cut. Measured media outlays for Saturn fell from $229 million in 2003 to $189 million in 2005, according to TNS Media Intelligence.

Acclaim among creatives
Even so, Goodby created notable campaigns including "It's different in a Saturn" and 2004's "People first." Its riveting "Sheet Metal" spot, which showed people exhibiting driving behavior -- without the cars -- was creatively lauded and expected to win at Cannes, though it was ultimately overwhelmed by Honda's "Cog."

And unit sales did start a rebound in the past two years, reaching 213,651 in 2005.

But that wasn't enough, and in recent months Saturn wisely decided to return to its customer-service roots. Trouble is, the agency wasn't able to capture what it wanted.

Eric Hirshberg, managing partner-executive creative director at Deutsch, Los Angeles, tells the story this way: On Jan. 17, only about six weeks after Ms. Lajdziak first met Deutsch executives in Detroit visiting another General Motors client, she called Mr. Hirshberg for ideas on how to promote Aura's Car of the Year award from the recent Detroit Auto Show. Saturn, he said, "wasn't overwhelmed with what they were seeing" from Goodby.

Pitch asssembled in four days
Deutsch immediately went to work. "We had four days to put it together and make a presentation," Mr. Hirshberg said. By Jan. 21, the agency was winging its way to Detroit, armed with seven ideas and three campaigns. Attending the pitch was Dan Keller, 52, GM's general director-retail planning for the North American corporate marketing and advertising unit, who knew Deutsch from the corporate work it did last year. Mr. Keller was named Saturn's marketing director Feb. 1.

Saturn called Goodby some 10 days after the pitch to say it was activating its 90-day termination notice on the entire $190 million account.

The news came as a surprise to agency Co-Chairman Jeff Goodby, who had only minutes before told Advertising Age he had not been notified that the agency had lost the account. But his reaction, while politic, was telling: "Advertising is always a product of both the agency and the client, and you have to do advertising a client is comfortable with and allows to happen."

Back to roots
Ms. Lajdziak wasn't available for comment; a Saturn spokesman declined to comment on Goodby's work or strategy, saying only that that the automaker plans to "re-emphasize" its customer-friendly image. Customer service is "very much a part of who we are," he said. "Ads can show the product very well and customer service. It's not either/or."

The spokesman said Saturn expects "fresh ideas" from Deutsch.

"There's an amazing level of goodwill people have for Saturn, even though the brand and its advertising have gotten more and more invisible over the last few years," Mr. Hirshberg said. "People don't have the same currency with the brand they once did, and our job is to get it back."

Resurrecting its customer-service positioning, combined with a broader product lineup, could "ignite the franchise," Mr. Sanfilippo said.

The win is a stunning coup for Deutsch, which has also won GM's corporate account from sibling McCann Erickson Detroit, Birmingham, Mich., and Chevrolet motor sports and Major League Baseball from sibling Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich.

Mr. Hirshberg called the account "the kind of assignment you got into advertising for."

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Alice Z. Cuneo contributed to this report.
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