26riney.190Social 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 =-.

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