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August 2007



Nice, new page layout, Laura!

The Saturn story is classic. In your telling, the turn is at the point of expanding beyond the initial vehicles. I characterize it more broadly as "what's next?"

They launch with a feeling of authenticity and sincerity, with small touches and warm reunions. Then they wake up to the understanding that they're a car company and wonder "what's next!?" Their parent had plenty to say and do about that ("spread wings," "expand the brand").

In hindsight, it makes the whole launch feel like an empty gimmick, rather than an honest starting point from which they'd grow.

Martin Calle

When GM had half of the U.S. automobile market, it didn't have a finely tuned branding strategy. It didn't have any competitors. Toyota was still Datsun making matchbox cars.

What good was Hal Riney's "emotional" Saturn launch strategy? Saturn has yet to turn a profit. By default, rethink American shouts a lack of confidence. Like Margaret Thatcher said, "If you have to tell someone you're a lady, you're not."

Rethink excess? Just another example of another advertising agency shooting from the hip with what they, and the client, think they know. Grasping at straws.

Advertisers used to stimulate their minds with thought processes of which they were unaware (my company's processes included) to investigate their products in-depth and find out what made them tick, what truly motivated consumers about products. The opportunities - nuances leading to new product and product positioning breakthroughs were seldom labeled. You had to do your homework. Today, CEOs unable to take their business to the next level simply jettison brands or advertising agencies. Do they believe everything that could be done, has been done? Leo Burnett did all the right thinking you espouse above.

They believed consumers preferred brands because they stand for something in the mind.

Toyota: reliable
Hyundai: stylishly affordable
Lexus: luxury
Volvo: safety
Scion: hip
Mercedes: prestige
BMW: driving

They still drove Oldsmobile into the ground because these scratch-the-surface beliefs misdirected their thinking. They targeted these positions and missed. Not because they were incorrect, but because too many rivals had already converged on the same positions - all saying and doing the same things about themselves differently. General Motor's brands never found their own sandbox to play in. And they never spoke to consumers. This is why it is fun to impeach automobile advertising and branding.

We hold the best of the worst up for example.

When Burnett got ahold of Oldsmoble as a client you know what they did? They didn't do any work. They looked around the shop and said, "What have we got that says this is a durable car? They looked at Maytag ads they had created. They showed how solid Maytags were by the sound of the thump when you closed the door. And that's how Oldsmobile got launched. It was a struggle and all downhill from there. And for this the agency was paid hundreds of millions while they sandbagged their client.

More than two decades of positioning consulting to General Motors later I more often than not found their advertising and branding was driven by a desire to talk to General Motors, by General Motors about General Motors. The consumer has never entered the equation. And their last attempt to do so failed. They hired US Deputy Director of the Census Vince Barabba as general manager of GM Corporate Strategy and Knowledge Development. During his tenure he introduced the 110 question need segmentation questionnaire applied to all product lines twice a year. It led GM to believe there was a market for people who wanted vehicles that didn't look too good. Both Vince and the Chevy Lumina departed. What Vince and marketers don't see are the pitfalls and poor traditions of question-based marketing. As Atticus Finch says in To Kill A Mockingbird, "You can't ask a question you don't already know the answer too." I find this to be true..."whenever you ask consumers a question, you don't get the voice of the consumer, you get the voice of the inquirer through the question being asked - a form of bias that will lead you astray." So we never asked consumers any questions in our brand-building positioning work. We proactively rather than reactively stimulated consumer minds with custom-crafted stimuli that caused them to say things they'd never previously considered. And the home runs started popping all over.

Let me pull a post about Buick and McCann-Erickson from my blog...

"Favorite Ad Blog Agency Spy has an open call for client horror stories, so I just left this post in a basket by their front door. If you have a few horror stories leave them in my comment box too. Feel free to name names and places. Like Dale Carnegie says, "if you've lived through it, you've earned the right to talk about it."

Was working with Buick and McCann-Erickson on the Buick Regal. It’s principal competitors were/are the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry - to better or worse extents these vehicles offer the bread and butter auto segment a nice synthesis of conservatism and sportiness. Their appeal is obvious and proven by their sales. I had the bright idea of debadging a black Regal and showing it at the auto show in Germany. Not because it was my idea, but because a consumer had suggested that a Regal really wasn't a bad looking car - if he just didn't know it was a Buick.

I made an agreement with Porshe to test the vehicle as a German entry by Porshe into the mid sized US car market. People FLIPPED. European owners of Audi, BMW, Mercedes; Japanese owners of Acura, Lexus, Infiniti couldn’t wait to get their hands on one. People were writing us advance checks we had to decline at the show. With blacked out windows the car was a sleek runway and runaway success. Paula Travenia was head of Buick Communications at the time. Maria Shoemaker was in charge of strategy. Where the Regal only sold 40,000 units per year (including units going to rental fleets) versus rivals Toyota, Camry and Taurus sold 1.2 million - quantification for the debadged Porshe-impersonating Regal revealed a domestic market of 800,000 units! And this was top flight top two box intent to purchase of 97%! All people wanted was for us to name the car MUNICH - and please use italics. We were stunned. Upon returning to the states McCann unleashed the entirely forgettable “Regal. Its a fine line between sport and sedan.” ad series with a Pierce Brosnan type driver. No consumer ever asked for one of these. And the character or “brand character” as GM calls it on their positioning statements was totally out of synch - unbelievable. The campaign died as did the Regal soon thereafter. Did the refs or players get payed to throw the game? We’ll never know. But it sure does seem strange that car marketers don’t know how to sell cars, once again proving that portholes remain potholes at Buick. Oh well, at least more of their ads are forgotten than remembered. That'sablessing - for now at least - until they again figure out how to connect and relate with consumers. You'd figure that after 50 years of selling vehicles they'd know what motivates people about their products. Guess not. Darn brand heritage styling queues keep getting in the way too. They like 'em, but we don't."

Every time I give a presentation at GM I always get the same pre-meeting whispers in my ear.
1) I have a lot of friends in the room. 2) Remember. No one's going to save GM single-handedly.

And I had Porshe's Chairman ready to sign a licensing agreement.

Susan Gunelius

I just published a post about the same topic at Brandcurve. I agree that Saturn has missed the mark with this campaign. I was a walking billboard for Saturn in the early 1990s when they lived their ad slogan and truly were a different kind of car company. They generated so much word-of-mouth marketing with their no-hassle buying experience, fair prices and amazing servie, but by the end of the 1990s things changed and they were no different from any other car company.

Saturn needs to refocus and figure out who they (and their brand) are then roll out a campaign that highlights their unique position (if they can find one again). The Rethink American campaign is not going to get the job done. In fact, it creates a negative feeling about an emotional, high-ticket item when the slogan is coupled with copy like "Rethink Excess" or "Rethink Value."

I purchased my first Saturn in 1994 and my second in 1996. I've purchased three cars since then and none have been a Saturn. At this point, I don't anticipate buying another Saturn anytime soon. Again, until they find a way to differentiate themselves again, I don't think they'll win back prior customers or generate a large amount of new ones.

Ben Bacon

The Cognizant logo? My father worked for them for years. I'll ask him when I have a chance.


Even tough I'm living in America, and not an American i remember the HYUNDAI "RETHINK " messages.

So, this is very incoherent of Saturn to accept the Deutsch "idea"!


Hey can any one tell how the cognizant logo came into existance... and does anyone know who designed it.... ? would be a great help if some one knows this piece of info and passes it on to me.... :)

Jay Godse

You are absolutely right Laura. When Saturn came out, I observed. When the chance came in 1997 to buy, we picked Saturn. We're still driving that car (SL1) and it still looks great in spite of surviving 10 Canadian winters.

The only reason we didn't buy a minivan from Saturn in 2000 is because they didn't have one.

I went by the Saturn dealership a few months ago and looked at their minivans. I asked how they compare to the popular minivans like Sienna or Odyssey or Caravan. The conversation turned into an admission that the Saturn van was a GM van (that was already a part of the product line of each of its sub-brands) with the Saturn logo on it and little else. Too bad. Now even their SL1/Ion line is suspect in my mind...e.g. Which crappy GM car is it under the Saturn logo?

In my mind their brand was about quality, simplicity, reliability, low maintenance costs and at a very affordable price. Now it's about peddling substandard GM North-American cars under their brand.

Oh well...we still have Toyota.

Ben Bacon

Re: Auto Industry Leader

Laura's point is not of the quality of one over the quality of another. If one looks objectively at the years and years of brand after brand after brand, they may come to see that quality does not win, it merely gives people the green light to proceed.

The auto industry is not the only industry into which Laura has plugged her branding model. It works almost without exception. And she never claimed her and her father's branding beliefs to be inerrant, simply intelligent and intelligible.

Laura does not create the brand issues, she merely reports them through her eyes.

Does GM have a brand problem? Yes. If they didn't, why would they be losing so much money?

How about this gem: I own a Chevrolet. Toyota doesn't need to pay me to say that GM has branding troubles. I am consciously cognizant of what makes a good brand just that: a good brand.

I know for a fact that, in places where people "bleed American," Chevy and Ford are the only real names. But those areas are becoming fewer and fewer. Major urban markets are too savvy to be lured in by a simple "made in U.S.A." tag. Give me substance, give me style, and give me a vehicle that doesn't break down with annual precision (like my Chevy).

GM has issues, yes? To my way of thinking, they have big, whopping, "rethink American" sized issues.

Auto Industry Insider

I've been in and around the auto industry for years and NOBODY, I mean NOBODY thinks about Hyundai let alone think of Hyundai as stylishly affordable. Good heavens where did you pull that out of because it wasn't from any consumer data I've ever seen, and I work with programs like Simmons every day.

It must be easy for you to tap off ten year old stereotypes and use them as fact. As a Mea Culpa I drive a Honda, but how easy and it must be to constantly bash GM for you Laura. I mean the big monolith is an easy target, but then I suppose you actually digging deeper and doing better research might keep you from promoting yourself.

It wasn't GM who recalled more cars in 2005 in North America than they sold. A "fanboi" such as yourself, who fawns over Toyota wouldn't really care about the mounting quality issues at the very Toyota you say simply means dependability, I mean heavens, Saturn has a brand issue.

The new Camrys had transmission issues, LOTS of transmission issues. The new Tundra rollout was a disaster quality-wise.

WHY do companies have brand issues? Because people like yourself find it easier to stick with the stereotypes you trot out instead of finding out the fluid truth. The stereotypes keep perpetuating themselves with your help regardless of what's really going on as they say out where the rubber meets the road.

How much DOES Toyota pay you to tilt at GM's windmills and ignore Honda? I mean you managed to work in all the Toyota talking points and all their brands so cleverly.

I guess the "GM Death Watch part 144" was already in use by Robert Farago eh Laura?

Steve Woodruff

When Saturn was launched, for a while, I had hope that maybe some corner of the American automobile market "got it."



Great article. I'll admit that I've always liked GMs, but it's been painful to watch them destroy all the brand structure that was carefully built up 50 years ago or so.

So do you have any suggestions as to what should be done to fix Saturn (and possibly the rest of GM's brands)?


Well said Laura, mixing all segments together into another name-tag can not always make a brand different or unique. And after long years of creating an identity, seemingly unnecessary product lines change the identity and association with the brand

Ben Bacon

You know, it seems so easy, sometimes. I feel that people like you or I should have no reason to go to work in the morning. Branding is really based on logic, not voodoo: narrow your focus and differentiate your position; capture mindshare before market share.

Alas, if everybody got it, we would be commoditized down to zilch, and the marketplace would be almost impossible for new brands, what with thousands of finely tuned niche brands competing fiercely for their narrowly focused category.

Thank God (my personal choice of deity...feel free to insert your own choice instead) for corporate ego and the true American way: BIGGER, BIGGER, BIGGER.

We shouldn't rethink American. After all, that attitude is what keeps Ries & Ries or TW Branding with a full slate of business!

I say all of this friendly and with my tongue firmly in cheek.

Thank you, Laura, for your wonderful insights.

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