Call it event marketing with a capital 'E.' After drawing 44,000 owners to its plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., during a homecoming event in 1994, Saturn Corp. is ready to do it again. This time it expects 64,000 visitors to swarm into town to listen to music, tour the factory and swap stories.
The second Saturn homecoming, scheduled for the last weekend in July, couldn't come at a better time. The company's sales are stagnant, and its battered self-esteem needs an injection of adrenaline. Saturn hopes another gathering of the company's avid followers - coupled with new products to show off - will do the trick.
'The enthusiasm for the Saturn brand and the experience is still very strong,' said Joe Kennedy, who was vice president of sales and marketing for Saturn until he resigned in February. Kennedy said there's going to be 'a heck of a show in Spring Hill.'
Among other events, homecoming participants will be able to test drive the redesigned 2000 Saturns and the new mid-sized LS sedan and wagon. They'll also get the chance to ogle the special-edition Homecoming SL. The metallic-green car sports combination leather-and-cloth seats, a white instrument cluster and a black Saturn exterior logo.
The Saturn community
Saturn's first homecoming in 1994 was the brainchild of then-president Don Hudler. The event yielded plenty of media attention and a collection of anecdotes about the extreme devotion displayed by Saturn owners. They include the 30-person contingent that trekked all the way to Spring Hill from Taiwan, and the car-club president who got tattooed with the Saturn logo for the affair.
It's an event almost every marketer would love to emulate.
'Saturn has gone beyond relationship marketing and created a community around the brand,' says Myra Stark, director of knowledge management and consumer insights at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York.
'There is a great yearning for community in modern life,' the Saatchi senior vice president says, 'and Saturn is bringing its owners together as a community.'
This time, Saturn is pulling out all the stops. The company has booked more than 20,000 hotel rooms within 100 miles of Spring Hill. It is helping to plan caravans to the homecoming from various points around the country that will depart several days before the July 30 kickoff of the event and stop at Saturn dealerships along the way.
Once owners arrive at the shindig, they can expect, besides a plant tour, a custom musical show that will include a rhythmic interpretation of the company's history and philosophy.
Kennedy expects another 150,000 or so attendees at homecoming-related events at the dealership level, some of which support the Special Olympics.
'I think customers really want to do business with people who care,' says Ron MacEachern, general manager of a group of three Saturn dealerships based in Troy, Mich. His group and other metro Detroit Saturn dealers also stage other events, such as co-sponsorship of and participation in an annual 150-mile bike ride across central Michigan as a fund-raiser to help fight multiple sclerosis. That effort costs more than $5,000 per dealer, MacEachern estimates.
Says MacEachern: 'Events like these show that we care not just about making cars and money, but about giving back.'