Finally, some unabbreviated output from ‘The Spench’.
The original article with a good background piece is here at the American International Automobile Dealers site.
Here’s the interview:
MB: Your success at Cadillac has been well documented and praised both in and out of GM, but that is history. Is there relevance to your new assignment, challenges and responsibilities at Saab?
JS: There are a number of parallels to Saab. The Saab brand has a great heritage, a very interesting heritage. The brand has unique, recognizable design elements, outstanding performance capabilities with fun-to-drive characteristics and personality. All are important today. I’ve always been intrigued with turnarounds and have been involved with several of them during my career.
MB: Where have you started?
JS: In my first four or five months on the job I went out to different constituencies and asked questions about Saab. I spoke to dealers, to the press, employees. Many people have had great experiences with Saab. I needed to learn what had made Saab great back in the 80’s and part of the 90’s … that’s when Saab was really working and what might work again today. I asked everyone to write me a note describing Saab’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities…
MB: What have you learned from this exercise?
JS: The nice thing, there was amazing consistency from everybody in terms of the opportunity. The big thing I kept hearing from people was the great potential for Saab. The enormous potential. There was great passion for the brand.
MB: How do you intend to capitalize on this potential?
JS: We’ve crafted the Saab premium growth plan. A foundation for what we need to do to take advantage of our potential. It’s a relatively simple plan that includes product, marketing and the dealer network. We must expand the product portfolio, make Saab cars true to what they’ve always been, craft the marketing message in a compelling way, develop a little more awareness – we do have an awareness issue. A lot of people are not sure what Saab’s all about.
MB: Where does Saab fit into the GM portfolio of brands?
JS: I believe Saab is a very good brand for General Motors! It does things for GM no other brand can do. We have the highest import brand conquest rate of any other GM brand in terms of who we attract and interact with.
MB: Assuming this to be correct, where have you started the turnaround of Saab?
JS: It all begins with and ends with product. We’ve had a product line-up that honestly hasn’t been that broad. We’ve been missing a key market and the fastest growing segment – the medium luxury SUV. That’s why 30 percent of previous buyers left the Saab brand to buy an SUV over the last four years and over 40 percent of current Saab owners have an SUV in their garage next to it.
MB: How are you handling this missed opportunity? And are there other opportunities?
JS: Saab has been just a two car brand but we just launched the new 9-7X SUV (This vehicle is not built in Sweden, but in GM’s Moraine, Ohio assembly plant). The Saab 9-3 has been a very good vehicle for us, but not having a V6 has been a little bit of an issue. The 4-cylinder turbo is very nice, but we’re coming out this fall with a V6 turbo across the whole 9-3 lineup which is going to make it world class in terms of performance, ride, and handling. We’re refreshing the 9-5, which is very important to us. And I’m looking at other product opportunities, one I like to call the “Entry-Luxury-Utility X3 market” opportunity.
MB: That’s very ambitious, don’t you think you might be over-extending the Saab product mix?
JS: Not at all. With the line-up just described, I believe we’ve got all the major segments covered. Internally, the competition is so difficult I know we have to have stellar entries.
MB: What did you learn about the Saab dealer organization?
JS: Saab has a great dealer network of 248 very strong dealers. One-third are exclusive, one third are dualed with non-GM brands, and one-third with brands from the GM portfolio. But all share the benefits of very high customer service and satisfaction ratings that win awards. Saab dealers are very loyal and very passionate about the brand.
MB: What about the advertising and marketing, do you plan any major changes?
JS: The “statement of independence” campaign we are running now is being evolved and modified into a more focused approach. It says Saab’s are different, but we need to give them reasons why they are different to add to brand consideration. Why Saab is different and letting you decide.
MB: How will you change the campaign?
JS: The inspiration for the new campaign will build on is Saab’s aircraft heritage. The history of building jets before we built cars. People find this fascinating, believable, unique. You do think differently when you build jets first and cars second. And that really explains a lot of why Saab is the way Saab is. (Saab does not own Saab aviation).
MB: Will you use specific examples in a feature/benefit mode?
JS: Yes … for instance, Saab’s heated seats came from pilot seats in jets … Saab wanted to keep pilots awake and warm and that was the innovation for having heated seats in Saab vehicles. An alert pilot is a safe pilot, just as an alert driver is a safe driver. A lot of things jets are, Saabs are because you wouldn’t do it any other way. We will add to the driver focus and performance, the really nice functionality and the emotional connection, the little surprises and delights that you might not expect in a Saab.
MB: Such as?
JS: The way the seats feel. The way you sit in the cockpit. The way the cup holder comes out when you press it. The key in the center console. We can wrap it up with the aircraft inspiration in a very emotional way. We tried the line, “When you build jets you build a different kind of car” – it really engaged consumers based on both qualitative and quantitative research. It draws them in and then you can explain a lot more. Saab is technologically advanced, progressive, and energetic.
MB: What mediums will you be using?
JS: There are a number of different possibilities we’ve talked about. Using Saab’s aircraft heritage, allows you to literally show off and influence prospects in unexpected, fun places where promotions can be used. We tested it on three groups with great success and positive results: Saab owners, people who are aspiring to move into the premium market, and competitive owners.
MB: Won’t dealers object to losing the “test drive” theme (people that test drive a Saab, usually buy one line) that has been so effective?
JS: You might see that as part of the new campaign – as part of the retail message. There may be a little unique twist to it that’s going to play out as part of the new campaign. I like that line a lot and think it works well as a retail message, but am not certain it works as a campaign message. The new message has wider appeal to our target markets, who in qualitative and quantitative tests, responded very well.
MB: How has Saab done with GM’s employee pricing promotions?
JS: It created a lot of awareness for us and generated a lot of traffic for us. Current Saab owners were attracted to the no-haggle prices. The deals brought in almost 70 percent incremental buyers to GM – that’s a huge number. Eighty percent on the 9-2X . Our closing rate has been very high, and we had the all-time highest sales for Saab in June of this year. We sold 6,600 vehicles in June, and 6,400 Saabs were sold in July. They are virtually out of inventory now. That really highlighted the potential for us when you can generate awareness.
MB: What other benefits do you expect to come from this three-month long price event?
JS: We’re re-doing our line-up for ’06, putting in more equipment, lowering prices to more transactional pricing, generally making it easier for people to shop and buy Saab.