Saturn Gets Serious by Peter M. DeLorenzo Issue 397, May 23, 2007 The new advertising from GM marketing for the Saturn Aura - the "Rethink American" campaign, which made its debut last week - is the first work by Deutsch L.A. for Saturn (after Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco was summarily dismissed earlier this year), and it merits a closer look. Some background is in order first, however. The Saturn Aura is probably the most significant mainstream sedan from General Motors in at least a decade. Touted, praised and awarded by the automotive media, the Aura is an ultra-competitive entry aimed right at the heart of the market. But the Aura has started off more slowly than expected, which has been puzzling and disconcerting for GM marketing types, to say the least. There are a lot of reasons and theories about why this is so, but only one really matters in this discussion - and that's the fact that after years of building mediocrity, GM is finding it difficult to convince the American consumer that they're finally building vehicles worth looking at. This "perception gap" is something I've been writing about for years now. GM (and Ford, for that matter) has lost a generation of buyers to the import manufacturers. As a matter of fact, there are households out there in America that haven't had a domestic-sourced car in their driveways ever. And it's a situation that is not getting any better, despite the fact that GM's product renaissance is in full swing. What's the answer? Well, another touchy-feely ad campaign isn't it. When you don't have an image, or the image you do have is shrouded in such a cloud of negativity that consumers won't even give you the time of day, then something drastic has to be done to help turn the tide. Ironically, Ford was the first to get the ball rolling in this regard, with its recent and ongoing ad campaign that compares the Fusion to the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. This kind of direct comparison advertising would have been unheard of just two years ago, but with a strong product story to tell, Ford is aggressively going after its import competition - and it's frankly refreshing to see for a change. GM's new Saturn campaign takes things even further, not only directly challenging the tired old formula of Detroit=Bad, Toyota=Good that has become rote in the media these days, but challenging the prevailing "perception gap" head-on too. The print ad starts off with the words Don't Buy It Because It's American. and continues with the following: Buy it because it's amazing. Buy it because it turns heads. Buy it because it gets all the little things right. And the big ones too. Buy it for the 5-star crash safety rating and 30 mpg hwy fuel economy. Buy it because 49 independent journalists voted, and it's the North American Car of the Year. Over both Honda and Toyota. The days of touchy-feely, hat-in-hand marketing thankfully appear to be over for Saturn. The ad concludes with the following: Introducing the award-winning, skeptic-slaying, game-changing Saturn Aura. The sedan that wins on its merits, and nothing else. And what's more American than that? Just something to think about. Will it be enough to get any attention or actually gain serious consideration from anti-Detroit consumers? We'll see. But GM (and Detroit) can't sit back anymore and allow the import manufacturers to dictate how the game is played. Reinvigorated, competitive products need reinvigorated and competitive marketing strategies. Advertising that takes the gloves off and confronts the competition - and the consumer - directly with a strong product story that dispenses with the previously apologetic tone of "we're almost as good for a lot less money" is not only desirable, it's mandatory. In other words, Detroit has to act like they belong in the game instead of employing their usual rope-a-dope tactics and hoping for the best. This new campaign for Saturn is significant because it marks a cultural shift for GM marketing. They finally seem to get the fact that whatever they were doing before wasn't working. And now that they're armed with some exceptional products, they need exceptional solutions and aggressive, unexpected communications strategies - the kind that go right at the preconceived notions that linger over Detroit like a death sentence. Next up for GM's aggressive new marketing attitude? According to Automotive News, Chevrolet marketing executives are encouraging their dealers to go out and put a Toyota Camry in their showrooms so that it can be directly compared to the all-new Chevy Malibu that's coming at the end of the year. The Malibu, which is on the same vehicle architecture as the Aura, is expected to be the most formidable, high-value competitor in years from GM - and they're taking dead aim at Toyota with it. I applaud every gutsy, take-no-prisoners marketing move that Detroit can muster at this point. Because after all, when you have nothing left to lose, why not go for it, right?