The Company Saturn's rapid rise in the early 1990s will always be a popular case study in successful brand building. By redefining the way in which automobiles were built and sold, Saturn endeared itself to the American public. In the process, Saturn sold a lot of cars and quickly established itself as a formidable player in the automotive arena. But as the decade progressed, Saturn began to lose its competitive edge. With little new product news and an aging model, sales slowed. Worse, Saturn's brand imagery experienced rapid decay. A brand once championed by youthful, forward-thinking challengers to the status quo had deteriorated to symbolize a car for older, somewhat quirky drivers. Yes, people still rooted for Saturn, but they wouldn't be caught dead in one. From a branding perspective, this was hardly a cozy place from which to launch a new vehicle.
The Challenge Scheduled to launch in the spring of 2003, ION represented Saturn's first new small car in 12 years. As such, the introduction was hailed as Saturn's opportunity to rejuvenate its brand image and to speak to a whole new generation of car buyers. Indeed, with one of the oldest owner bases in the automotive arena, Saturn\"s survival depended on ION\"s ability to reach and appeal to a younger audience. But research told us that Saturn had very little caché with younger buyers. To be successful, we would have to demonstrate a relevant understanding of their lives that was also consistent with their needs from a small car - a difficult task in an already crowded compact segment.
A View From Above A look at the world of small car advertising revealed a fairly narrow (if not shallow) portrayal of young people. In fact, messaging from many of ION's competitors seemed to be saying the same thing: \"Our small cars are fun.\" Ads for the Ford Focus turned the vehicle into a mobile dance club. Spots from Toyota depicted the Corolla surfing and skydiving. Mitsubishi, with its music video inspired ads for Eclipse, provided the best example of an over-glamorized 20-something lifestyle. Saturn, we knew, could not get away with such an approach, nor did we want ION to become lost in the \"fun\" clutter. Instead, we turned to our target audience to see how we might transcend this one-dimensional representation of young people.
In the Trenches Based on our own experiences we knew that life as a young adult was more complex. To provide ourselves (and the creatives) with additional context and language, we decided to recruit several groups of friends - all between 24 and 32 years of age - for an open, honest discussion about their post-collegiate experiences. What we discovered was that these young people were indeed at a significant crossroads in life, a period characterized by the unfamiliar intersection of childhood and adulthood. Faced with many choices and uncertainties pertaining to work, love and personal fulfillment, these young people candidly talked about leaving behind their days as heavily dependent, hedonistic college kids and becoming self-reliant, self-assured adults. As the groups progressed, we also learned that this transition was happening slowly, one experience at a time.
One anecdote proved especially insightful. When asked if they were, in fact, certified \"adults,\" most participants smiled and shook their heads. \"Not yet,\" answered one young woman, \"I still sit in meetings and laugh at the fact that I'm pretending to be an adult.\" Other, similar stories emerged in the groups, and we agreed that the \"crossroads\" theme of growing up without growing old could be an interesting platform for ION in the small car segment.
The Strategy On the heels of \"Sheetmetal,\" an anthemic spot that re-declared Saturn's respect for people as much as for the vehicles it manufactured, we knew that ION had to represent Saturn's understanding of a younger car owner. Armed with the transcripts from our peer groups, we felt confident that we had done our homework. In the end, we gravitated toward a phrase used by the respondents themselves to describe the transition from childhood to adulthood: \"moving on.\" Thus, ION became a vehicle (literally and symbolically) for people who are ready to move on in life.
Spreading the Love In this case we felt that a traditional creative brief would not suffice. Instead, we pulled quotes from the research and amassed them, along with some appropriate images, in a book. This book ended up becoming a visual articulation of our strategy and our target's life. For this reason, the book's impact was far more reaching than the traditional piece of paper. It became a useful springboard for the creatives, a selling tool with the client, and a means of education with retailers.
The Work The creatives embraced the idea of \"moving on.\" In fact, the launch spot featured a group of friends driving through the town of Childhood; leaving town, the friends veer off-road at the sight of a sign that reads, \"Old Age Ahead.\" Other executions featured the same group of friends driving through the towns of Prom and College - both ads with one foot in the past and the other in \"whatever's next.\" The work was on strategy, but it was also eye-catching, fresh and contemporary - everything Saturn needed to appeal to a new generation of potential customers.
Results We took the new campaign into research and found that the work succeeded in accomplishing our goals. Respondents understood that ION was a new small car from Saturn, but we also heard people personally connecting with the insight in the ads. We were also pleased to learn that the work was changing perceptions of the Saturn brand. (\"The ads seem more youthful than what I've seen in the past. I can see myself in that car.\") Saturn's turnaround was not going to happen overnight, but these findings signaled a dramatic improvement in Saturn's relationship with young consumers. In fact, early demographic results show that ION's customer base is younger than those those for the S-Series, ION's predecessor.
Source: Saturn Sales Reports Sales, the ultimate barometer of success, illustrate ION's momentum in the marketplace. July's results were the best since January's launch, and we expect this trend to continue in the second half of 2003. In July, we were also pleased to learn that ION's share has increased to 7.1%, making it the 5th best-selling car in the segment.