Now that Saab is Swedish again -- or at least Scandinavian, having been wrested from General Motors by Danish company Spyker earlier this year -- the automaker is hoping to bring back consumers who have departed over the years.
Saab has just launched its first global ad campaign in two years, and is about to roll out its first completely redesigned car in at least that long. The new 9-5 full-sized sedan, which is rolling off boats from Trollhattan, Sweden this month, is also the first bona fide Sweden-made Saab in over a decade. The challenge for Saab, say the company's president and CEO Jan Ake Jonsson and North American COO Mike Colleran, is getting people who own or owned Saabs to understand that the company is back and in traditional form.
After 18 months in which it built few cars and produced no advertising as GM restructured, Saab recently launched its "Move Your Mind" campaign via McCann-Erickson. The executives say the campaign presages a range of crossovers, wagons, sedans, and small cars to take on prime competitors Audi, BMW, Volvo and Mercedes.
"When we restarted, we were forced to do a seven-week shutdown while getting suppliers ready," said Jonsson, at a New York company overview and product intro on Tuesday. "Inventory worldwide was at its lowest point -- thus no marketing activities. Now all suppliers have ramped up, volumes are increasing this month, and demand is heading in the right direction."
Colleran says the company has had to make big changes to its marketing messages to get people to understand that Saab is no longer a niche division of a U.S.-based auto behemoth. He says the automaker also jettisoned the overt association with fighter jets that was central to Saab ad creative under GM.
"With the 'Born from Jets' campaign, the idea was to use fighter jets as a symbol for performance, safety and technology," he says. "But that actually drove away a lot of loyal customers. So as soon as we were able to, we dropped it and moved to the global 'Move Your Mind' messaging, which went live in the first quarter this year."
Colleran, a former GM executive with both Saab and Cadillac, adds that the carmaker's first job is to bring back loyal customers who had given up on the brand, or were turned off when Saab vehicles started looking an awful lot like Chevrolet SUVs or Subarus.
"We have put together an extensive loyalty communications package, including a loyalty bonus for all customers, and we talk to customers on an ongoing basis either via direct mail or events," he says. Saab last week was in Aurora, Ohio for the annual Saab owners convention, and the company has been wooing Saab-fan bloggers who wield enormous influence.
Magnus Hansson, global product manager for Saab, says the company has been bringing people who pen Saab blogs to the company's headquarters and manufacturing hub in Trollhattan, Sweden to get product previews and factory tours.
Saab is not completely abandoning the aircraft identity, which the company has used in one form or another for decades. Colleran says that while the campaign for the 9-5 will carry an "Anything But Ordinary" theme, the aircraft imagery is not entirely gone. "It is the underpinning of the brand. If you look closely, you can see the effort to communicate that, in the same way we are saying that we are a Scandinavian brand."
The ads also mention Trollhattan. Colleran, however, says that since a lot of Americans actually have no idea what or where Trollhattan is, the ads are being tweaked to point out that it's all about Scandinavia.
Hansson says there is a lot of wiggle room for Saab, because the premium segment is growing. He says that by 2020 the premium segment will constitute 8 million new cars sold every year worldwide. Hansson points out that currently Saab competes in the middle of the premium market with vehicles like the 9-3 and 9-5.
"We do not intend to enter the upper segment [populated by cars like Mercedes S-Class, BMW 7 and Audi A8], but we will be in the lower segment, below 9-3. It is very important to us," he says. "It's one of our top priorities."
Among forthcoming vehicles are Saab's first crossover, the 9-4x -- due next April -- a wagon version of the 9-5 sedan next summer, and a redesigned 9-3 mid-sized car in 2012. "By then," says Hansson, "the oldest car in the showroom is the car we are launching today."
He says Saab's global volume goal is 120,000 cars per year with a break-even of 85,000 vehicles by 2012. The U.S. will be the biggest market if things work out, with between 20% and 25% of total global Saab volume here.
Victor Muller, CEO of Spyker, who attended the press event, said the market potential for Saab is latent because there are now 1.5 million Saabs in the world and 4.5 million people who formerly owned one of the vehicles. He says the company will win them back by "demonstrating Saab as an independent company that can build cars with Saab-brand DNA.
"You could argue that Saab doesn't need new customers; we only need to gain our old ones back," he says, adding that new products will go a long way to achieving that. "Many are people who couldn't get cars because, for instance, we did not offer all-wheel-drive. The future is bright because of our tremendously loyal and highly educated customers." He says 78% of Saab's U.S. buyers have a university degree.
Colleran says that when Saab was part of GM it had the highest household education of any GM brand and was comparable with Audi, although "we are a little younger and slightly more female, and more metro," he says.
Saab marketing in the U.S. focuses on "smile" markets (both coasts and major Midwest cities), per Colleran, who adds that the company's retail footprint and sales are strongest in the Northeast.
"We are identifying where customers live and what sources of media they use," he says. "So we are targeting major metropolitan markets like New York and Boston." Saab's media, handled by Ingenuity Media, targets informational cable channels like History, Discovery, Fox CNN, BBC America, and NPR radio. He says the company is doing spot buys in its key markets, and helps dealers run their own ad strategy.
Muller says the most frequently cross-shopped brand for Saab is Audi, followed by BMW, Mercedes and Volvo, with those brands constituting 60% of the vehicles that people cross-shop versus Saab. "We belong in this group; the problem is we haven't had the car to compete except a 13-year-old 9-5," he says.