Back Seat Driver

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

Joni Rainbolt doesn’t just market Oldsmobile’s Silhouette Premiere. She helped design it.

Rainbolt was an engineer on the team that dreamed up the family minivan with a built-in movie system. Backseat passengers can watch videos on a monitor and VCR mounted on the ceiling. Rainbolt had worked on engineering Silhouette’s platform for 18 months before joining General Motors’ department for specialty vehicles, where design on the movie minivan began in August ’97. Halfway to Silhouette’s May ’98 production date, Rainbolt flipped to the marketing side “to worry about a great way to launch it,” she says.

Silhouette was scheduled to launch in July ’98, but the United Auto Workers strike in the spring delayed it. The bonus of three more months was a windfall for Olds’s marketing team and agency Leo Burnett USA, Chicago: Now they had nine whole months to prepare.

Oldsmobile partnered with Blockbuster Video and Turner-Time Warner for a campaign rich in movies. Turner lent images from its film library, including clips from The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind. Blockbuster stores became “the official entertainment headquarters of the Silhouette Premiere,” with ads fashioned like movie posters and a 30-second spot on Blockbuster’s in-store monitors. A direct-mail campaign offered a million consumers $50 Blockbuster gift cards to test drive the minivan; direct-response print ads carried a $25 gift card offer. With three partners signing off on all details, “Burnett did a Herculean job keeping everyone on target,” Rainbolt says.

The campaign also brought Hollywood glitz to Olds dealerships, with red carpets and velvet ropes leading to van displays, and movie-scene hang-tags on cars in for repairs. “You don’t see a lot of Wizard of Oz imagery in car dealerships,” says Burnett account executive Ruthie Orbach. “It reinforced Silhouette’s image as fresh and innovative.”

Olds also helped dealers approach neighborhood Blockbuster stores for local overlays. Eighty dealers requested the Olds “Pro Book” for local promotions and generated an additional 10,000 test drives.

My mother the car marketer It’s not unusual for GM engineers to move into marketing, but it’s uncommon to work both sides on the same vehicle. “It was like raising a baby and seeing it go off to college,” Rainbolt says.

Marketing is like engineering because “in both, you always think of the customers’ needs as the forefront. That filters how you make decisions,” she explains. “But they’re also very different disciplines, because marketing decisions are made very quickly. You like a piece of creative and you go, go, go. Engineering time frames are like four years. Marketing is more like four months.”

During the design phase, Rainbolt’s sons, ages 9 and 11, were her coziest focus group. The family took one of two prototype vans on summer vacation, and GM “tweaked it based on their input,” Rainbolt says. “They’re very proud of helping.” (They were also bummed when Mom gave up the test van.)

GM is like family for Rainbolt, whose dad worked for the company. She graduated from the General Motors Institute, a co-op school the automaker ran in the ’70s and ’80s, and has been at the company ever since. “It’s in my blood,” she shrugs.

These days she’s working on marketing plans for model year 2000. “I’m hooked on the marketing part,” she says. “It’s a very high-energy, exciting business.”

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