New Saturn campaign: a victim of old thinking?

Saturn is set to launch an interesting new promotion this Summer.

Saturn to Park Competition On Dealership Lots
by Karl Greenberg
Friday, Jun 1, 2007 5:01 AM ET

SATURN MAY BE ROLLING OUT a fresh line-up of vehicles this year, but consumers visiting Saturn dealers this summer will be surprised by the pair of cars parked next to Saturn’s Aura sedan: Toyota’s Camry and Honda’s Accord.

The effort, a retail version of the overtly competitive “Ford Challenge” campaign by its cross-town rival, lets consumers shopping Saturn’s Aura test-drive the Camry and Accord, as well, when they visit Saturn.

The effort, called “Side by Side by Side,” launches June 11, runs through July, and will be supported by national TV, print, direct mail, and point of purchase materials. Chevrolet is mulling a similar effort in support of its redesigned 2008 Malibu, on sale this fall. (Story.)

Not surprisingly, I like the concept here, and for a couple of reasons. First, if your product is better, you want the comparison front and center where your customers can’t possibly miss it. Second, the approach projects a strong brand confidence, and in a point-of-sale environment, that attitude counts for a great deal – maybe even enough to overcome some material advantages of the competitor product.

Even better, it establishes a “faux level playing field” that gives the marketer an unfair advanatge. Sure, all the cars are side by side, fair as can be, but only one is being advocated for. If your people are properly trained (big “if” there, I know) this looks like a level playing field when it really isn’t. Great psychological landscape for selling, that.

There are a couple things that bother me about the campaign, though. For one thing, it looks like it’s being staged as a gimmick. Dealers will have to round up their own comparison cars, which signals a lack of genuine conviction from GM. And it’s a 1½ month campaign – if you believe Side by Side by Side is a legit competitive advantage, why wouldn’t you make it part of your ongoing operational assumption? As a customer, what if I know that I can walk on any Saturn lot at any time and the dealer will put me behind the wheel of a competitor vehicle, and that confidence is part of the Saturn brand year-round?

As it’s structured here, it looks like a hot shot that’s nine parts dog & pony show to one part serious commitment.

Finally, I see “TV, print, direct mail, and point of purchase materials.” I don’t see mobility – which would be a natural for a campaign like this – or any apparent awareness of our new media landscape. This looks like an old media bonanza put together by people who think it’s still 1960.

On the whole, it looks like somebody had a great idea, but that idea then fell into the hands of the old guard. It’s a shame – this is a campaign that could be a lot more than I suspect it’s going to be.

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6 responses to “New Saturn campaign: a victim of old thinking?

  1. Great analysis. I’d be tempted to spend a Saturday on the lot just to see how well the scheme makes it from the marketing department to the sales floor. I’ll bet that first weekend will be a mess.

  2. That’s another angle, of course – training and execution. And I doubt that I’m optimistic there, either – a company that builds this kind of campaign around a legacy media blitz is unlikely to have invested sufficiently in cultivating the kinds of on-site expertise needed to make it sing. (I mean, dealers are on their own finding comparison vehicles – no way that the manufacturer has invested in training…)

  3. There’s another factor: fatigue. Buying a car is nothing short of exhausting. So why not go first to the place that has all three vehicles? That’s that I’d be banking on anyway.

    As for the new media angle…that’s probably best done at the local level anyway:

    “Ms. Jones – You were in last week and we noticed you were also shopping Accord and Camry. Here’s a chance to see all three “Side By Side By Side” and let us know what you think…”

    Will they still waste way to much money on old media nationally? Probably.

    The next level? If you prefer the Accord or Camry, we’ll give you $1,000 to go to the dealer to buy it! Whoa! Now THAT would shake things up a bit.

  4. Hey John – good to hear from a guy who KNOWS the automotive industry like you do.

    I think there’s a lot you can do locally with something like mobile, and certainly online HAS to be part of how you market at the dealer level these days. But even at that, the opportunities for integrating mobile into this campaign at a national level are staggering. I’d be willing to bet that if they gave me 10% of the total campaign budget I could generate at least 25% of their results and in the process do some dramatic long-range brand relationship building.

    But man, your “here’s $1000 – spend it here or spend it there” idea – yeah, that would get people’s attention…. 🙂

  5. Maybe Saturn’s making it a limited time gimmick–and I think your word choice there is spot-on–because they’re only confident about the match-up with current model years. (I’m only taking a stab in the dark.) Without knowing what’s coming off the assembly line from the competition, maye Saturn doesn’t want to get too far out on a limb.

    I’m not in any qay defending that kind of timididity, by the way. It smacks of the “safe” way of doing business. When I bought my first Saturn, though, Saturn went out of its way to position itself as a company that thought and acted differently (and that image really appealed to me as a consumer); it has since fallen largely in step with the rest of the U.S. auto industry.

    Wait…I think the same thing happened to me over the years, too….

  6. You may be right, Chris – and if it’s true, then why should a customer be any more confident about the brand than its own people are, right?

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