Message from a condemned car brand: Were still here

Updated: Mar 31 2009, 06:17am hrs
For the first time since the financial difficulties of General Motors began threatening the companys existence, a GM division will run advertising that addresses the effects of the precarious situation.

A campaign for the Saturn division of the General Motors Corp, which is now under way, features dealers talking frankly to consumers. The dealers urge potential car buyers not to be deterred from considering Saturn by the problems confronting GM, the American automotive industry or the economy in general.

Saturn sales have tumbled along with the sales of almost every car and truck brand since the financial crisis started in September. But the sales outlook for Saturn is being complicated by viability plans filed with the federal government in connection with requests from GM for loans to stave off bankruptcy.

Saturn is among four marques, along with Hummer, Saab and Pontiac, that GM identifies as not part of its long-range plans for full brand lines. GM said last month that Saturn would be phased out by 2012, although the company would consider a plan from dealers or investors for a spinoff of the division.

We know whats going on in the market, said Kim McGill, director for advertising and promotions at Saturn in Detroit. Were not hiding behind it.

Regardless of what has happened with the industry, with General Motors, she added, we still need to communicate that Saturn continues to sell a full portfolio of products.

The campaign is intended to tackle the issue of trust that may arise in these circumstances, McGill said, as many marketers caught up in the economic turmoil find it necessary to reassure consumers. That is particularly true for Saturns dealers, she added, because theyre the face of Saturn in their localities.

How frank is the conversation between dealers and consumers One television commercial is titled Were still here.

Not a day goes by that someone doesnt ask me, Whats going on with Saturn Todd Ingersoll, who owns two dealerships in Connecticut, in Danbury and Watertown, says in a television commercial.

Let me tell you whats going on with Saturn, Ingersoll continues. Were still here.

In a second television commercial, Jim Smith, a Saturn retailer in the Dallas area, describes how he will come home from work, turn on the television and listen to these pundits talk about the fact that American car companies cannot build a car Americans want to buy. Saturn builds cars that Americans want to buy, Smith declares.

The campaign, which also includes radio, newspaper and online ads, is risky. For one thing, it may raise red flags among car shoppers who were unaware of the clouds over the Saturn nameplate.

We didnt want to alarm folks out there, McGill said, so for those unfamiliar with GMs plans, the campaign asks them to keep Saturn in mind when they shop.

That may be a large part of the population, she said, adding that research indicated less than 50% of people associate Saturn with GM. When GM introduced the Saturn brand in 1990, it was presented as an import-fighter with few if any ties to its parent. That was typified by the theme of the campaign from Hal Riney & Partners, the first agency for Saturn: A different kind of company, a different kind of car. The local Saturn dealers also played a major role in those early ads.

It is no accident that the new campaign offers echoes of the introductory campaign by putting the dealers front and centre, said Eric Hirshberg, co-president and chief creative officer at Deutsch LA, the creative agency for Saturn.

The heart and soul of this brand has always been how it treats people, which has always been activated at the local level, said Hirshberg, whose agency is the LA office of Deutsch.

Its easy to dehumanise all this and think about it as a big, abstract problem, Hirshberg said of the economy. We thought, lets put a human face on this brand. Jackson, who is consulting for an agency, Sarkissian Mason, suggested that GM sponsor a plain-speaking campaign like Saturns, promoting the corporate brand along with the divisional brands.

NY Times / Stuart Elliott