It was my last meeting with Saab. The new marketing director had decided that we were just too difficult to work with, and wanted a new team. When his predecessor introduced us to the new guy, he had no idea that we’d be working together again soon, for Lexus Europe. Meanwhile, he’d be moving on inside GM to work on the launch of the new Cadillac platform, and the later Lexus work would bring us into contact with the man who is presently heading Bentley’s sales and marketing. The car world is a small world. Back to the meeting. New guy is drawing a very sketchy car on the whiteboard.
My Saab journey had been part thrill, part misery. The thrills: First worked on the international launch of the 900 cab, where I met the designer Einar Hareide, which led to my sitting on the board of his design company some years later. Was then brought in to work on the 9-5 launch by a brilliant Finnish creative director and designer whose car credentials cover Audi-Porsche-Saab-Lexus. Jari Ullakko and I enjoyed frequent trips to Trollhättan, long discussions with the engineers, and the general joy of being in a company with spirit and soul – still not beat to pulp by GM.
My encounters with ENGINEer Per Gillebrand were thrilling (if GM then had used a quarter of the engine improvement ideas he and his team cooked up …) I spoke with the geniuses who designed the crash protection in the 9-5, they laughed with pride when describing they could open the doors of the first prototype crashed in a test – the survival space intact.
The first 9-x concept, not the BioHybrid PR rehash, but the first one. I rode shotgun with a Saab stuntdriver along a donkey-trail in Almeria, at 200 km/h, two meters from the edge, heading for a steep cliff, where he did a 90 degree sliding turn and straightened out the car just before we went over. Thrills.
The misery: Realizing that GM didn’t get the car, and didn’t want to. New guy is at the whiteboard. Yes, definitely sketching a car – looks like a Volvo. Figures, he was brought in from Volvo to head up international marketing. “My goal is to move the metal!”
How about moving minds and souls? How would that work out for you? See, to move metal, you must first move minds and souls. GM managers would rotate in for two years, just enough to begin getting the car, before scooting off to the next brand.
GM wanted Cross-Platform Synergies, and didn’t pay much attention to the individual brands. Just look at www.gm.com – I hate that place – they still think there is such a thing as a GM-car, at the expense of the individual brands, and they’re never going to abandon that mindset.
“I have looked at your advertising. The cars are too small in the spreads. I want to fill the pages with the cars.” New guy has a strategy, he thinks.
GM killed the “Saab versus …” campaign after a year – they had tested it in the new markets they wanted to enter (Texas), oblivious to the fact that it was a huge success with established customers and with Saab enthusiasts. “It’s too intellectual. Fucking high-brow stuff doesn’t sell cars.” Saabish people still remember that campaign.
New guy is clueless that no one will remember any of the ads he will be signing off on, since they’ll look like all bland car ads out there. In desperation, at the end of the run and when it’s too late, they’ll grasp for Born from Jets, after GM having nixed Saab’s aircraft heritage for fifteen years. GM: “That’s not appropriate for the luxury segment.”
New guy is drawing a rectangle tightly around the Volvo he has sketched on the whiteboard in the Saab conference room. Ah, it’s a two-page ad. He tries to draw the “chicken with a party hat” logo in the bottom right-hand corner. Looks like a pineapple.
“This is how much I want the car to fill the pages. To move the metal, we must show the metal.”
We presented our last attempt to move Saabish minds. A commercial with a 900 cab flying on ice, powder rising like a contrail, and stopping next to some ice fishermen. The top opens. Grey haired father with son, the father with his leg in a cast. He is greeted by the other fishermen, and then drills a hole in the ice next to the car. Spot ends with father and son fishing, seated in the car.
“There is no luxury in this,” says new guy.
That was my last day working for Saab.
[Stein X Leikanger is a brand conceptualizer, brought in by brands to create their communication platforms. His advice is often ignored, yet handsomely rewarded.]