Automotive News quiz Kurt Schirm – SCNA Dealer Council head

Whilst I’ve had email dealing with Kurt Schirm for some time now, we first met in person just a few months ago at the LA Auto Show. Like all the dealers I met there, Kurt’s passion for the brand was obvious and he was a wonderful guy to talk to about Saab and the future.

Automotive News have just published an interview with Kurt and I think you’ll see that passion come out in his heartfelt descriptions of life under GM, the sale process, and the outlook for the future. Kurt gives some sage words of wisdom about how it feels at the coalface when it comes to selling Saabs and the message that needs to be promoted in 2011.


What can Saab do to help dealers sell more cars?

I think it’s really just staying focused on creating the brand, relaunching and re-educating. In a lot of instances, educating for the first time the U.S. consumer base about the brand, really digging into the history and heritage.

I think that’s one of the things that makes European cars special and makes them worth the premium. You know, there is a heritage and history to each of the brands that makes them worth more than the sum of the sheet metal and components.

Saab has a very rich history, especially for a company as small as Saab, [such as] the level of engineering, the number of innovations that they’ve brought to the industry, the number of patents, the number of industry firsts. It’s really an impressive story. And the way they think about engineering, it’s always to bring things to the simplest common denominator so they don’t overcomplicate design when it doesn’t need to be.

We need to pound that message as to what Saab is, what the brand means, and what products we have in our current portfolio that are the embodiment of that heritage. We need a very well thought out efficient method of communicating that.

I think Kurt’s right on the money here. I’ve always been a solid believer in Saab’s heritage playing a part in building their future. The first thing that got me interested in Saab was my first ride in a Saab 9000. The second thing that got me interested in Saab was the incredibly engaging story of where they came from and why they did things differently to other car companies.

Saab need to promote their product first and foremost, but they’ve got a lot of other great stories to tell, as well, and I hope they dig deep and bring them all to the proverbial table.

Recommended reading.

Thanks to Gerhard for the tip!

22 thoughts on “Automotive News quiz Kurt Schirm – SCNA Dealer Council head”

  1. Did you know that Saab invented the ejection seat and forgot to patent it. That is just amacing I think.

    They just fixed the problem and that´s that………..patent……..Why…….now we can reduce the numbers of killed pilots and thats good. I think it was J-21 or its predecessor with propeller.

    • …and in addition to that they also invented the world’s first airbag system to protect the pilots knees when he was ejected (also in the J21).
      In fact, not only Saab cars but also Saab airplanes have had quite innovative designs. Such as the early use of the (small front) canard wing on Viggen and Gripen, that improves manouevrabilty, low-speed characteristics and reduce take-off/landing stretches.

  2. 🙂 As someone who has worked on ACES II (and some Martin-Baker) ejection seats for all of my adult life, I did not even know that!

    I knew the Germans during WWII had the first operational one… but never knew SAAB produced one as well.

    On a day in which I was somber overf the status of SU, the Steelers and other things… this brightened my day! Thanks!

    No wonder my love of Saab came so easily 😉

  3. “I think it’s really just staying focused on creating the brand, relaunching and re-educating. In a lot of instances,…”

    How true.

    I had ANOTHER person tell me last week that SAAB were out of business.

    This happens about twice a month…sometimes more frequently. Arrgghh! 🙁

      • The Engineering features booklet could well be guidebook on how to keep a bit of heritage in future Saabs. Here’s what it says about Green instrument illumination which I know have been discussed here occasionally:
        ‘The lighting is green- a colour which has been proven to be best when driving against oncoming traffic and thus using daylight vision in darkness. Red light is definitely inadvicable – itwould conflict with warning lights in traffic and on the instrument panel.’
        (from page 18 in the linked pdf) Lots of other techno/philosophical material that also holds true today.

    • hughw…

      Which ads are you referring to? The ads I did in 1978? Or the AdLobs I showed at last year’s SOC?

      If you’re talking about the ads from 1978, here’s a little history. When Bob Sinclair arrived at Saab, he faced a mountain of trouble. Sales were stalled. There was zero momentum. Dealers were threatening that they’d bail out. There was low awareness. And he faced some deeply-entrenched competition. He hired a new agency, Ally & Gargano in New York, an agency he knew from when he worked at Volvo. Carl Ally, one of advertising’s most esteemed figures, was the account guy. Carl liked my bomb-throwing style, so I was put on the account as copywriter. We had to move quickly because Saab’s situation was dire. The agency had a large library filled with car data and car buff magazines, so I spent a week or two sorting through road tests, etc. With the info in my hands, some of the road tests comparing the performance of the 900 Turbo to Ferraris, Maseratis and the best BMWs, I wrote a tagline (“The most intelligent car ever built”) and the first six ads, along with a series of radio commercials. Plus a sales brochure since Saab didn’t have one. The ads started running in key Saab markets six weeks after the agency got the account. And they worked!

      The AdLobs I showed at last year’s SOC were more or less a follow-on to the aggressive ads I wrote in 1978, although I changed the tagline to “Intelligent cars for intelligent people.” (A truism, I think.) When I presented the work, I got laughter and applause in all the right places. All in all, a wonderful response. FYI: I generally believe that when you’ve got something to say, you should say it. In 1978, when I was pitching the 900 Turbo, I went for the jugular on behalf of Saab in its battles against its competitors. Today, I’d do the same thing if I were writing ads for the 9-5 or 9-4x.

      • Curvin, I was referring to the ’78 ads. I ended up with a 900 turbo in 82 because of them. Great ads. And I knew Ally and Gargano by reputation as we’re architects and responsible for George Lois’s offices back in the eighties, he of the “think small” VW ads.

        • You bought a great car!

          “Think small,” “Lemon” and the rest of VW’s early ads were actually created by Helmut Krone, if I’m not mistaken, along with Julian Koenig, George Lois’s copywriter partner when the agency was known as Papert, Koenig, Lois. George took credit for everything, which caused Julian endless pain.

          • George also took credit for the venetian blinds all being adjusted at the same angle ,because he went though the whole office every morning and did it himself.

  4. As I’ve said over and over, it’s probably a strategic mistake for Saab to keep saying it’s still around. First, it’s old news. Second, car buyers don’t care. What they care about is getting a good deal on a car that meets their needs. The sooner Saab starts talking aggressively about the brand story and the multiple features that makes Saabs so appealing, the better off the company will be.

    A little history proves the point. In 1976, Saab’s US market share was .07%. In 2009, its US market share was .08%. During the years 1978 to 1987, when Saab was running its “Most intelligent car(s) ever built” advertising, a campaign I started, its market share rose from .10% to .30%.

    It’s true that comparing Saab’s marketing environment in 1978 to the one today is an apples and oranges situation, but the fundamental principles still apply. Said Howard Gossage, a legendary US ad man: “People don’t read ads. They read what interests them. And sometimes what interests them happens to be an ad.” Said David Ogilvy, another legendary US ad man: “You can’t save souls in an empty church.” Paraphrasing his advice about creating engaging ads, you come up with a truism about the car business: “You can’t sell cars in an empty showroom.”

    For the sake of all the Saab dealers I’ve met over the past year, I hope their showroom traffic increases! (Maybe it’s happening! I just read on Facebook that Darryl Carl at New Salem Saab sold a new 9-5… how great is that!!!)

    • Hi Curvin,
      Are you sure your numbers are correct. I thought that there are about 8 million cars sold per year in the US. This number has been roughly the same (+-10% to 20%) since 1970 although it peaked to 10 million in the eighties. The market shares that you are stating (0.1% max) computes to less than 8000 cars. Isn’t that a bit on the low side?

  5. GerritN…
    My market share data numbers come from Ward’s Automotive. It’s total vehicle sales, which includes pickups. I’ve got some charts from last year’s SOC presentation that you might find interesting, but I’m semi-illiterate when it comes to computers. They’re PowerPoint charts that I converted to jpg screen shots. I’m flummoxed at the moment, however, because I don’t know how to attach them to this message.

    • Thanks for the plots, Curvin.
      I don’t think that sticking pictures in our comments works anymore, so here are the links to your plots:

      What I take away from those numbers is that selling 100,000 Saabs worldwide would be sustainable, 16,000 of those sold in the US.
      Statistics are always interesting. Unfortunately they only work for big numbers and over longer periods of time, otherwise flukes can be killers.

      • GerritN…

        From the Saab case history in Amil Gargano’s recent book, “Ally & Gargano: The life and death of the agency that created perhaps the most successful advertising of the last half of the 20th century”:

        “After 23 years in the US car market, Saab sales in 1979 were 14,979 units.
        “After three years, in 1982, the weakest year for the auto industry since 1963, Saab had its best year ever.
        “In the nine years of our relationship, unit sales trebled to 44,364.
        “We helped Saab achieve an unprecedented 60 consecutive, record-breaking months of sales ending May 1987.
        “The US became Saab’s largest and most profitable market.
        “In April 1988, the last month of our successful partnership, Saab had its best month in its history, while the import category in which Saab competed was down 23.8%.
        “Long after our departure, it took 16 years for Saab to finally surpass our record with 255 more cars sold in the first quarter of 2003.”

        If you’re guessing that Amil was deeply pained when Saab took its advertising account to a new ad agency, you’d be 100% right.

        FYI: The title of Amil’s book isn’t an overstatement. The agency was wonderful.

  6. As much as I think heritage is important and one of the key items that sets the euro luxury segment apart from companies like Lexus, I think, at least here in America, this message has been gotten for good or bad with the whole “Born from Jets” campaign. People understand Saab came from something and has a purpose but they don’t really know how that purpose translates into current products. The talk IMO should be less about the past and past innovations and more about what makes them unique now with some actual substance. They need to highlight unique or class leading prices and features and let buyers know what makes a Saab worth buying today and more importantly what makes a Saab better than other cars. While I love artsie and clever campaigns there has been a lack of real meat in the Saab message, I know of a lot of people who like Saabs (and don’t own them) because of how they look, they also know that my car has some aeronautical tie in but besides that they have no idea what makes a Saab worth the money. On the other side of the coin they know Audi sells clean diesels, they know Audi has Quattro, they know all BMWs are RWD or AWD, etc. Saab needs to associate itself with tangible and substantial ideas that can be found in current products, not just nods to a past. The XWD system has been called class leading by many many journalist yet Saab advertising never plays this up. Why? AWD makes Subaru and has helped Audi a lot here too yet Saab has a better system than both and the general consumer has no idea it exists. The 9-3 with less than 120g is already doing very well in Europe because it offers something that other manufactures don’t and Saab is letting people know through their marketing. Here in the US we see and ant carrying a leaf and are told they are eco but then the message isn’t followed up with anything tangible, just “Biopower”, what does that mean? It’s all far too vague here in the US. Especially when you consider the 9-5 2.0 has class leading fuel economy when compared to Audi and BMW, that’s a meaningful peice of information that I’m sure few know.

    Anyway, I really feel there needs to be less emphasis on heritage and more on current products and innovations if you really want to capture the eyes and ears of US consumers.

    PS – Don’t want to sounds as if I know what’s best, because I don’t, but this is the only place I know where to voice my 2 cents. Thanks for reading. 😉

    • Actually, I wanted to post something to the very same effect.

      I do appreciate Saab’s fine and substantial heritage. This is what really makes one fascinated with the brand once one gets attracted to it by the immense peculiar allure of one of the car models.

      But when you are about to sell a product to a non-convert, you have to tell them why the product is great, not that you did great in the past. The kiss of death many journalist give to Saab is to start expounding on Saab’s glorious past, even glossing it over, and then stab the 9-3 or even the new 9-5 with accusations of mediocrity.

      The fact is, however, is that both Saabs, despite their well-known shortcomings, are still brilliant vehicles. In particular, the oft-dismissed 9-3 is a brilliant creation of engineering and design. Especially for the spec-hungry Americans who love to compare their cars every possible way, enumerating the many practical features and benefits of the Saabs, could do wonders to their perception. There is a lot to build upon, one just needs to take a peek at the Saab brochures to find much inspiration for it.

      Just my 2 cents here.

  7. Totaly agree. If you have 5 inches more legroom than your German competitors, tell it. If your XWD is better, say it. If you are 10% cheaper, …….. And if you can be the first brand to add Head Up Display as a standard to every car you sell, do it.

    Saab. Independent minds.

  8. Funny enough, a while ago I suggested that Saab publish such a booklet containing more technical information for those who really want to know, somewhat out of frustration that Saab’s broschures are lacking such stuff since more than ten years. I didn’t know that such booklets had already existed!

    More than showing superiority in certain fields, such booklet would display the will to provide people with data and details allowing them to make more educated decissions.

  9. Kurt is a great spokesperson for the brand and for the dealers. I’ve met him, and I can’t think of any person who is more of a SAAB guy than him. He is a wealth of SAAB knowledge, and he speaks with passion and authenticity. Also, he runs an amazing team at International Motors. The sales, service, and parts teams are the best of any SAAB or non-SAAB dealership I’ve ever worked with. When the time comes for my time with the new 9-5 to come to an end, I know I’ll be back in his dealership for a new SAAB.

    For comparison, I recently had to help my mom get a new Volvo S60 T5. Sadly, I could not get her to think about a SAAB because she fell in love with the look of the S60. The local dealer’s staff barely knew a single thing about the vehicle (they even told me it was built in Sweden until I politely pointed out that the sticker clearly states that the vehicle is built in Belgium!), and I personally had to search around the area dealers to find a car with the equipment she wanted when the dealer’s sales team was too lazy to turn on their computers. Pretty much the only thing that you can’t quibble about when it comes to the Volvo experience is the insanely good lease deal that Volvo is running!

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