26riney.190“Social Media,” “Brand Touchpoints,” and “Transparency” have become promiscuous and, well, downright slutty little buzzwords in today’s world. To the point where one almost reflexively judges a marketer using them to be a bit of whore himself.

But would you ever expect those same strategies to come from a big-time TV advertising firm? From back in the 90s? Straight outa the mouth of an advertising legend who created 3 of the Top 100 Advertising Campaigns of the Century, and two of the most potent and admired political ads, since, um, ever?

Well, here’s a video of Hal Riney talking about the launch campaign he created for Saturn. Skip ahead to the 56 second mark and see if you can’t hear the man describe exactly these kinds of new-school strategies.

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A Quick and Dirty Transcript

And for those of you who who’d rather just read a transcript, here’s what the man said:

“But our job isn’t to do television commercials. Our job is to solve problems. And it may be that television is the answer, but it probably isn’t the only answer, and there are other ways to think about things… And…and our answer was to find ways to make people like this company. And that took the form of letters that we wrote to consumers and a thousand other things besides television commercials.

So we did everything…

… and we, and we got involved in a lot of things like… like color. What kind of color – what do we call the colors, you know, Santa Fe Sunset, or what? Well, how about Red?

All you had to do was to look at everything Detroit did and just do the opposite. And, and that’s virtually what we did. We guided the company through all of that and it was extraordinarily rewarding to find out that this kind of honesty and straight-forwardness and integrity that we tried to maintain, actually worked.”

A Breakdown of (just some) New School Strategies Employed by Saturn

Well just look at all these no sh*t, new-school branding strategies:

  • Personal, mailed letters = social media.
  • Organizing plant tours and owner get togethers (not talked about in this interview, but vital parts of the campaign) = Social Media
  • Letting people see how the cars are built = transparency
  • Having a no haggle pricing policy = transparency
  • Making the “thousand other things” match up with the brand promise and advertising = transparency
  • Relying on customer advocates and Word of Mouth = Buzz Marketing / Tribal Branding
  • Skipping out on the falsely exotic paint names, like, “Cheyenne Sunset” in favor of the more conversational, authentic color names, such as “Red” = speaking in an authentic voice = transparency

But What About Saturn’s Branding?

As you may have noticed, this interview with Hal Riney is featured as an extra from a documentary on advertising called Art & Copy (highly recommended, by the way). And in another scene from that movie, Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein (former employees of Hal Riney’s) discus their famous “Got Milk” campaign. Here’s a rough paraphrase of some of what they said:

The previous milk campaign was “Milk: It Does a Body Good,” which showed athletes doing stuff, like sprinting a 100 yard dash and then downing a glass of milk. And that didn’t work because it wasn’t the truth about milk. No one guzzles milk after working out. That’s not how or when we drink milk.

In contrast, the “Got Milk?” campaign worked because it reflected the essential truth about how and why we drink milk, and it did it by focusing in on the genuine moment of need.

This is a brilliant strategy and one that was memorably dramatized in all of the Got Milk TV campaigns, starting with the very first one:

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Tell the Essential Truth About The Product

So let’s just start with that, shall we? You have to tell the truth about your brand.

As a canonical case study of this dynamic, Avis Rental Cars couldn’t say they were number 1 because, well, they just plain weren’t. And when Avis tried to advertise as if they were number 1, they got clobbered.

Yet once they ran their famous “We’re number 2; we try harder” campaign, the advertising worked. They told the truth about themselves and their service: they admitted what the buying public already knew (that they were #2 in the industry), an admission that bought them instant credibility, and then Avis used that credibility to make buyers feel differently about what they knew (that being #2 kept them hustling harder than the competition) — and it worked.

So that’s point number 1: Tell the truth about the product or service.

For Saturn, they told the truth about being a brand new car company trying to resurrect America’s pride in manufacturing. About wanting to build an honest car, to sell it for an honest price, and in an honest straightforward fashion. This is in contrast to car commercials typical claims of superior performance, luxury, prestige, engineering brilliance, or price — none of which would have rung true or worked.

Instead of making false claims about superior performance, Saturn made an honest claim to virtue, which is often a more-then-acceptable substitute.

If you doubt this was really the strategy, take a look at this ad from the initial launch campaign. There’s a clear line of virtue symbolically transmitted from the 3rd grade teacher, to the letter and picture she sends to the plant, and then onto the car itself when the plant worker literally puts that symbolic piece of virtue into the car. Watch it and see…

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Tell Them What to Expect – And Then Live Up To It

Then there’s the other side of the Avis campaign, the one no one really talks about. And it’s a two-parter:

  1. avis-time-02-01-1963-007-aGiving specific verifiable expectations to the customer
  2. Making darn sure the cars lived up to the promise.

Take a look at one of the original ads from that Avis campaign. Now count the number of specific, verifiable promises made in it: no dirty ashtrays, worn wipers, etc.

Well, what no one really talks about is how Doyle Dane Bernbach — the agency that created that campaign — insisted that Avis put the operational systems and managerial priorities in place to ensure that the cars lived up to the advertising.  As Bill Bernbach put it: “It’s always a mistake to make good advertising for a bad product.”

And they weren’t kidding around, either.  Avis did a complete customer service overhaul, upgraded their fleet of cars, and ensured that each employee received a copy of new Avis ads in his or her pay envelope before each campaign was launched.

Few people talk about these things when discussing the Avis campaign, but they are an undoubtedly major reason the ads worked.

So what about Saturn?

Many of Saturn’s major brand promises centered on the dealership experience, as dramatized with such astonishing brilliance by this Hal Riney ad:

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As long as the dealership followed-through on that experience, the ads would work. And that’s why Hal Riney makes a point to mention the letter writing and the “thousands of other things” they had the dealerships do to ensure brand integrity. My favorite touch from the commercial is setting the clock for the new owner – ahhhh 🙂

So why is this so important? Three reasons:

  1. Specifics make your claim more credible
  2. Specific allow you to shape your customers’ expectations
  3. Specifics allow you to easily fulfill those expectations

Without this strategy, most stores devolve into promising great customer service, which isn’t believed and generally results in nothing but greater complaints from customers who come in with heaven knows what kind of expectations.

The Advertising Still Helps & We’re Still Tribal People

So what does this mean today?

Well, non-advertising communication of the brand, through multiple customer touch points and social media and all those grand new-school advertising things ARE indeed important.

But only when aligned around an intelligent, strategically sound campaign.

Oh, and it still helps to have some old school mass media muscle driving your essential message out to the, um, masses.  Yes, Virginia, digital is cool and direct marketing is cool, but mass media still kicks some major branding ass when wielded effectively. And brands are still all about shared values and tribes and personality — and relevancy (yes I’m not above using a slutty marketing buzzword or two 😉 ) — those are the make or break factors.

People want to belong, Something that Saturn and Hal Riney well knew…

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P.S. For those of you who laughed at the “look at everything Detroit did and just do the opposite” line, you might enjoy this article on Counter Branding from Roy H. Williams, another advertising great, and my business partner.


  1. Kimberly Ruzich on 01.24.2011

    Hey Jeff…I very much enjoyed this article, as it has a lot of great, relevant information that dictates…”Hey stupid! Keep it simple and tell the truth!”.

  2. Shane Arthur on 01.25.2011

    Kick Bleep Article, Jeff.

    Being an owner of two Saturns, I couldn’t agree more. Damn shame the company is no longer, though. Parts for my cars are getting harder to find as time goes on.

    I’m sure there’s a lesson in her about Saturn’s mother Detroit company ruining it.

  3. Jeff on 01.25.2011

    Thanks for your comments Kimberly & Shane! And, yes, there is a lesson about Saturn’s failure. A couple of them, in fact, at least in my humble opinion:

    1) Reinforce your successes. When Saturn was a successful launch and a profit generating product, it should have been reinforced by GM rather than left to stand still and eventually stagnate.

    2) Focus on the brand attributes that brought you to the dance. Seems like, after a while, Saturn stopped focusing on the dealership experience and only focused on the no-haggle guarantee. They should have been doing what Huyndai and BMW were doing: guarantee to buy the car back if the owner can’t sell it for a high enough resale value or if the owner doesn’t like it + offer included maintenance for the first 3-5 years. This would have given people more confidence to buy the car when shopped in competition to Hondas and Toyotas and it would have increased dealer contact and brand touchpoints.

    But alas, Saturn ended up stagnating and then dying. Very sad. IMHO, the next great American manufacturing turnaround is taking place at Ford. Cadillac is doing some good things, too, but I think Ford is really turning it around and doing some Savvy marketing around it, too. Execution on the ads isn’t that great, but very intelligent messaging in a strategic/directional sense.

    – Jeff

  4. Shane Arthur on 01.25.2011

    Sad thing is, I would have bought another Saturn even without your suggestions for Saturn. I was that sold on the no-haggle.

    In this economy, I’ve always felt that car companies need to see themselves as engine companies. I don’t care what they do, make a damn engine that get’s 50-mpg, period! Just do that. Stop messing around. I know they can do it. They know they can do it. Do this, and they won’t need any clever advertising. Someone should frame the issue like this, “Hey car company X, make an engine that gets 50mpg and you’ll have billions each year on advertising you no longer need to create.”

    And make the cars cheap, too. All I need is a radio, air conditioning, heat, four wheels, and 50mpg. First company to do this, wins the future.
    .-= Shane Arthur´s last blog ..Creative Copy Challenge 112 =-.