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Our Special Report on Automotive Marketing last week centered on how to build brand loyalty. Worth noting, too, is an excerpt from a speech by General Motors Chairman John Smale talking about loyalty to an advertising theme that works.

It's almost axiomatic that a company will tire of an ad theme long before the public does, and good ones are often dumped for less successful ones. (Note that Burger King, in its latest agency search and selection, was insistent on a back-to-basics ad approach.)

In remarks to Saturn dealers, Mr. Smale said, "Having spent a good deal of my own career in brand marketing [at Procter & Gamble Co.], the message I want to leave with you is simple: Don't change what you're doing!"

From the get-go, Saturn and its agency, Hal Riney & Partners, have concentrated on developing a people relationship-between the public and the people who manufacture and sell the car. It's daring and unique, and it's been working.

"Regardless of how heavily your competitors are into short-term promotional advertising," Mr. Smale said, "I urge you to stick with what you're doing. That's the way you maintain and strengthen that brand equity, and it will definitely pay off in the years ahead."

Therein lies the rub. Dealers have quotas to meet, bills to pay and can't always look only to "the years ahead." They often have their own ideas on how to bring in the customers. That's why GM divisions are trying to cut out local agencies in favor of a unified theme from the national agency.

We've called that trend unfortunate, believing regional shops can, with proper direction, take advantage of local conditions without undercutting the national theme. And Saturn dealers, looking at inventory in their lots for the first time, are starting to feel the need for some local sales "push." For them, the temptations will be great.

But Mr. Smale's message remains on target, and not only for Saturn and the auto industry. A sound marketing theme builds on itself over time, adding strength, not confusion, to the message.

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