Saturn ‘side-by-side’ promotion
Carlos Osorio  /  AP
Vince Olsen, center, the manager of a Saturn dealership in Troy, Mich., compares a Honda Accord, left, with a Saturn Aura, center, and a Toyota Camry as part of a promotion to boost Aura sales.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
msnbc.com
updated 6/27/2007 12:24:46 PM ET 2007-06-27T16:24:46

If anyone doubted General Motors’ determination to muscle its way back into the midsize sedan market and fight Toyota “hard for every sale,” as Chief Executive Rick Wagoner has vowed, they need look no further than Saturn’s latest marketing campaign.

Dubbed the “Side-by-Side-by-Side Test Drive,” the campaign places a Toyota Camry and Honda Accord next to Saturn's new Aura sedan in 435 U.S. dealerships.

The idea: Allow Saturn shoppers to test-drive all three vehicles in one visit, and of course to decide the Aura is the best option. GM says it wants too change the perception that its cars are inferior to those made by Honda and Toyota.

The initiative is part of GM’s renewed emphasis on the midsize passenger car market.

Having practically handed the market for popular sedans to Japanese automakers in recent years, GM is now intent on winning back share, and the Accord and Camry are squarely in its sights.

GM has plenty to brag about when it comes to the Saturn Aura, which went onsale a year ago, replacing the unsuccessful L-Series. The Aura has won favorable reviews and was voted North American Car of the Year for 2007 by journalists at this year’s Detroit auto show. It follows last year’s introduction of Saturn’s popular Sky roadster and is part of a broader product overhaul at the brand.

With 22,535 sold through the end of May, Aura sales are decent but could be better, said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at Global Insight. (Sales are just a small fraction of the 330,000 Camrys and Accords that have been sold through May.)

Lindland's estimate is for full-year Aura sales of 78,000 units, although so far the model is on track for a more disappointing 65,000. The side-by-side promotion is a good way to try to get more traffic into Saturn’s showrooms, she added.

“Right now, Saturn has a full stable of new products, but they’re not getting the attention they deserve,” Lindland said. “Now they have the product, one of the challenges the brand faces is pulling people into their showrooms, so this is a good way to get them into the new vehicles and show the progress that GM has made in terms of the style, ride and handling of their cars because they have made improvements.”

Saturn has evolved considerably since it launched in 1990 with three models that struck a chord with the intended Generation X target market — the low-cost SC (“sports coupe”), the SL (“sedan level”) and the SW (“sedan wagon.”) While those models did well at first, the brand  failed to grow with its market, Lindland said, and Gen X-ers moved on.

Now GM is trying to move upmarket with the the Sky, the Aura and the Outlook crossover.

Lindland said the side-by-side promotion could help Saturn fine-tune its marketing.

“One of the concerns we have with Saturn is they have had a few different ad agencies and their marketing campaign has had its stops and starts,” she said. “So they need to get their marketing message aligned, and they definitely have to do some innovative marketing because there is so much money spent on automotive advertising these days. So this is a bold move for Saturn to do this, but I think they can be confident because the products are so good.”

Saturn’s sales, however, are stagnant. Last year the company sold 226,000 vehicles, which is actually less than its total 232,000 in 1999, according to Global Insight data. This year Global Insight projects the automaker’s sales will pick up to 245,000, but so far sales have lagged, and Saturn needs to pick up steam, Lindland said.

“They’re definitely not doing as well as they could, and part of the reason is marketing. People don’t know they have these cool products,” Lindland said. “Sales increasing every month is a good indicator of a brand doing well, of gaining momentum, but the Aura has to pick up some steam. Good marketing support can help the Aura because it really is a good product.”

At Saturn of South County, a dealership in St. Louis, Mo., the new Aura “side-by-side” promotion is gaining some traction, according to owner Jackie Dunne.

Dunne says she purchased Camrys and Accords in February for her four dealerships in the St. Louis area, placing the cars next to a new Aura on each lot.

Dunne, who sits on Saturn’s national advertising board, said she then ran ads in local newspapers asking people to try the Aura before they buy an Accord or Camry. News of the promotion spread to corporate headquarters, and it soon became a nationwide marketing campaign.

“We wanted to go to market with some confidence,” Dunne said. “The midsize sedan market is very crowded and our advertising up until recently has been spotty and we haven’t got the word out enough about this car and what it has to offer people. So we wanted to make a stand and dare our consumers to drive all three and make a choice, and for the most part they are amazed at the confidence we have in the product and that we’re putting it up against the ‘big boys.’”

Dunne says the Aura promotion helped sales in March and April, although she said it’s hard to tell which customers have decided to buy an Aura after test-driving the Camry or Accord.

“I would say that about 80 percent of the people who came in saw the ad in the local newspaper and what they have been saying is they didn’t know Saturn had a car that was the same size as a Camry or the Accord,” she said. “They haven’t always taken the Accord and the Camry out and then walked anyway with an Aura, but of the people who do come in after seeing the ad, I’d say we’re closing sales with about 40 percent or more, and for the car business that’s pretty good.”

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