SBHD: Awareness of Saab in Britain has dropped to less than one in five of those questioned. When your ad spend is a minuscule proportion of the market total and your parent wants results, then whatyou spend it on has to be spectacular. Cue a series of Californian crashes.
She had travelled 8,000 miles for the Californian light, and now the weather was about to close in. For Saab GB advertising manager Debi Wadsted, at the halfway stage in the shoot, the clouds represented her worst nightmare.
At stake was Saab GB’s first original television advertising campaign in the UK for seven years. It was not just the £680,000 cost of the ad, or the £4m set aside for media – the television ad, which makes its debut next Monday (March 13) – represents much more than that for the UK arm of the Swedish car maker, which is 50 per cent owned by General Motors.
It is the relaunch of the brand in the UK after several dormant years – an attempt to spark life into it and create a distinct image. It is the most important marketing initiative Saab GB has taken since it came to the UK more than 30 years ago. If it fails, the future of the marque in the UK will inevitably fall into question.
Awareness of the marque has slipped from a 1987 high of 30 per cent to only 18 per cent, sales have dropped even more dramatically – 23 per cent since 1989 – and the launch of the all-new Saab 900, 18 months ago, failed to give the marque the much-needed fillip it expected. The company spent only £1.2m on promoting the 900 launch compared with the £7m spent by Vauxhall on the Omega and Ford’s £4m budget for its niche vehicle, the Probe, in 1994.
In a market where advertising expenditure fell just short of £500m last year manufacturers are having to spend money simply to stand still and although Saab sold 9,339 cars last year – an extra 183 on the previous year – it is not keeping up with its rivals.
The imminent arrival of the new campaign has been given added spice by the parent company’s determination to establish Saab as a global brand supported by a single global marketing strategy.
In February 1994 it appointed the Swedish agency Lowe Brindfors, part of the Lowe group – General Motors’ lead agency – to handle all international creative work, which sounded like the death knell for other creative agencies.
Simultaneously Barker & Ralston replaced CME.KHBB in the UK with a brief to “adapt” Lowe Brindfors’ work. This led to tension between GB and Sweden and a series of press and poster ads under the “Very Saab” label which meant little or nothing to UK consumers, whose awareness continued to fall.
At the time of the appointment Wadsted said: “From now on we will be taking our creative lead from the Swedish and pan-European agency, Lowe Brindfors. The role of our agency (Barker & Ralston) will be to adapt and amend work developed by Lowe Brindfors.”
The Swedish ads were meaningless in the UK market. Behind the scenes Saab GB was clearly unhappy and by December had won a 20 per cent increase in its marketing budget – £1.4m – and been given the go-ahead to shoot two new films, “Testing” and “Naked”, on a budget of £700,000.
Saab GB and Barker & Ralston view the new advertising as the first phase in a three-year campaign. Research shows that Saab was failing to attract consumers at the first purchasing hurdle so the campaign is designed to change perceptions of the car as cold and expensive. Quality, performance, safety and its aircraft heritage were the essentials of the brief.
But they may never get the chance to conclude the full three- year term. Next month an international marketing conference will consider Saab Automobile’s options and there are three ad executions, from Sweden, the US and the UK which will effectively compete for global exposure.
This is Saab GB’s last chance to establish creative control over the image of the brand in the UK – Saab Automobile’s largest European export market. The parent, it seems, is now involved in playing different geographical parts of the company off against one another and clearly hopes a global marketing strategy will emerge out of the scrap.
The tension was clear on the Californian set when it became known that the agreed sign-off line for the ads, “Nothing on Earth Comes Close”, was out of favour with Sweden. Frantic attempts to call Stockholm from the Californian mountains proved unsuccessful – cowboys were more common than international lines.
“It is ridiculous to change at this stage, it was all decided,” said one source on the set.
But Saab GB, and Barker & Ralston creative director David Barker, lost the battle. The endline for the ads is now a much more anodyne “Pure Driving Pleasure”. Other options included “Human engineering”. However the early indication is that Barker’s ad, rather than being left on the shelf, is in serious contention for global use.
Saab GB first used television advertising in 1984 but has not originated anything since 1988. It had success with the “aircraft” campaign, created by David Barker at CME KHBB, which focused on the Saab heritage. But since then an overdependence on short-term, tactical ads has led the brand down a dark alley while competitors such as BMW have prospered.
“We decided in 1991 that the aircraft campaign was not going anywhere,” Wadsted says. “When we joined with General Motors, the link became even more tenuous and while our heritage is aircraft, it is less of a factor than it was in the Eighties. We knew that we had to get back on television and after taking that decision we had to decide how to do it.
“There is a need to increase awareness and the brand image but at the same time we have to sell cars and this ad could take a good 12 months to register. If it is not successful we will have wasted another 12 months.
“Saab in Sweden has accepted the argument but it is developing a global strategy and so in its eyes this is still treated as an interim tactical campaign. We cannot do that anymore, we cannot spend £680,000 on a campaign and then change direction every 12 months,” Wadsted says.
The first fruit of that decision is “Testing”, a 60-second mix of high-tech crash scenes shot at a deserted airforce base and a drive through rolling hills shot in mountains north of Los Angeles, but with the location kept deliberately anonymous so that it could be anywhere from the Scottish highlands to Scandinavia – with better weather.
The ad represents a dangerous gamble for Saab. If the crash scenes had ended in injury it would not have been just the driver’s shattered bones on the floor of the aircraft hanger but also Saab’s reputation. Both survived in good health.
But Saab GB still only accounts for 0.5 per cent of the UK car market although its reputation is way beyond that figure. It has set an internal target of 11,000 sales by the end of the year and 14,000 within three years. That will require an unprecedented leap of 49 per cent between now and 1997.