Saturn Asks Americans to ‘Rethink’ Its Brand

LOS ANGELES Sparks flew when General Motors’ vp of marketing and advertising Mike Jackson (who last week announced his impending departure) introduced Deutsch/LA principals Mike Sheldon and Eric Hirshberg to Jill Lajdziak, general manager of Saturn, late last year.

Lajdziak, who’d been using Omnicom’s Goodby, Silverstein & Partners since 2002, quickly assigned CCO Hirshberg a project to celebrate Aura’s car of the year honors, and just weeks later shifted the $190 million account to the Interpublic Group shop without a review.

Deutsch’s first full campaign for Saturn, which broke last week, uses visual comparisons between outmoded thinking and contemporary values (smokestacks versus hybrid vehicles, for example) along with the tagline “Rethink American.” Here Lajdziak, who rose to her position in 2004, offers her thoughts on the brand.

Q:What are your feelings about the new campaign?
A: I feel very good about it, that we’re going back to the roots of this brand. When we came into the market in 1990, we asked America to think very differently about a car brand. We challenged the status quo and every conventional wisdom of the industry, and said, “How do we do it better?” We’re still innovating; we just need to showcase that innovation, “rethink” Saturn.

What’s the meaning behind the tagline, “Rethink American”?
We are an American brand, and people want to root for a great car that just happens to be an American brand. [Our] brand offers hope amidst pessimism. It’s an optimistic brand, offering a kind of American hope.

How had Saturn advertising lost its way in recent years?
What happened before is that the pendulum swung too far to just product, as opposed to brand. The brand has to speak clearly in the market. We discovered that if the advertising is solely car-centric, it doesn’t work for us. The brand transcends the product; consumers want to hear the tone of the brand. No other brand can talk, as our new advertising does, about Americans’ value systems; that can only come from a brand rich in value. Comparing our new campaign [from Deutsch/LA] to a campaign with a car going down a winding road, well, consumers don’t associate that kind of ad with Saturn. It doesn’t resonate as a Saturn ad.

What are some of the nontraditional elements of the new effort?
We have got to leverage all the media. In the traditional media, we may have swung too far. You’ll see more digital, which is very important, especially to us. And more events and promotions: We’ve got an unbelievable retail network, but it’s relatively small. We cover the entire marketplace with just 436 [dealerships]. So we have to take the product to where people are and augment the retail footprint at various events. Events are working to change perception. You’ll see Saturn displayed anywhere from college campuses and art fairs to our greenhouse efforts [building “living greenhouses” at Washington, D.C., locations such as Union Station and the Ronald Reagan Building].

What happened to erode the relationship between Saturn and Goodby?
I won’t comment on anything to do with Goodby. But I will say that between Deutsch and Digitas, our online marketing will be superior to what it has been. Digitas will handle the lower-funnel traffic and the site navigation, and Deutsch will supervise the look and feel of the brand at every touch point.

With sales up 20 percent, why the agency change?
It was time to find an agency to take us to the next level. I was on a mission to find an agency that understood the DNA of our brand and I found it in Deutsch. I couldn’t be more proud to be partnered with them. We have an agency that is working on behalf of this brand, that is partnered with us, and understands the DNA of the brand, the soul of Saturn. I have every confidence that they can bring it to life.

What are the mistakes the brand has made that you’ve learned from?
The brand has to stay on strategy at every turn; and everything has to [weave] into the platform we’ve laid out.

In a line, what’s the DNA of the brand?
Challenging the status quo. The spirit of innovation. We challenged how we sold cars, the retail process and how we come to market—24/7 live chats, test drives at home or the office, for example. We never lost that.

The Sky model has been a success for you without much advertising at all. Do you believe in the concept of a “halo” car?
The image of our product was a little more utilitarian than the reality. In our revitalization plan, we needed a halo product. We chose our roadster to help us do that, a halo product that can be very distinctive, very emotional, engaging, aspirational—a vehicle to let the world know the design direction of the brand.

Based on the Sky, I’d say that direction is more masculine, muscular. Was that the intent?
Saturn’s design collaboration is with Opal [in Germany]. We’re designing everything out of that studio with them. Sky [designed by Franz von Holzhausen, now at Mazda, based on the Vauxhall VX Lightning] is our product direction in terms of the design cues: Sky’s pronouncement in the hood, the brand bar, the wheels pushed to the side, short overhangs. You’ll see it in Outlook, Vue and Aura. It’s a terrific relationship, great collaboration.

What’s the biggest challenge facing Saturn now?
We’re launching a lot of product in a short amount of time, and that’s no small task, to change perception to where the product character had been and where it is going. And we’re leading the industry in year-over-year sales increases. “Rethink American” is a first down. We’re very humbled by our accomplishments so far. We’re not calling it a success yet. We expect to win in the marketplace one customer at a time, with great customer experiences.