In 1994, my father traded in our family’s ’84 Dodge Caravan for a used ’92 Saturn SL2. The car was teal. I bought a suit at Randy River that matched the car colour, and sported both to my high school graduation. But that’s neither here nor there.

Roundabout 1992, this little car company (a subsidiary brand of a big car company, GM) burst on the scene with polymer (read: plastic) exterior panels and suicide door coupes, and really got noticed. Sure, the cars were talked about, praised and panned depending on who was reviewing, but the real buzz around Saturn was the small cult-like following they were building among their ‘drivership’ (a word I just made up … all rights reserved).

Building Community Around Plastic

Dealers added newly-minted drivers to mailing lists, and arranged monthly meet-ups for Saturn drivers: picnics, barbecues, even Saturn nights at the drive-in theatre. In cities and towns across North America, these plastic cars brought groups of people together – people with nothing else in common and no former connections. They’d get postcards alerting them to the next Saturn event, and eventually the customers took the planning of these events into their own hands, often coordinating additional meet ups among themselves.

Sound familiar?

I was reflecting in Winnipeg’s rush hour traffic (read: I missed the amber light, and had to sit idle for 45 seconds) about how far ahead of the curve Saturn was in the social marketing revolution. This brand positioned itself as a common thread among its drivership© and used that one thread to build a community and a movement. And that movement became newsworthy, bringing national attention to these gatherings, and through them, the brand. And all of this succeeded without the benefit of Internet, and largely without e-mail or the other real-time mass-messaging tools we take for granted today.

Cheese, Ben Affleck and stem cell research

And at their core, that’s what social networking sites and social marketing campaigns seek to offer or create: communities. Networks of people who have nothing in common but a passion for cheese, an affinity for Ben Affleck or a stance on stem cell research. Wash away the proliferation of ‘apps’, the development of new browser plug-ins, and the multimedia brand-names-turned-verbs (admit it, you’re “Facebooking” about this blog entry right now), and at the core of this new wave of how humans communicate is the core human compulsion to belong, to share and to connect to one another. When a brand can position itself as a means to that end, it transcends itself as a product or service.

Maybe that’s why my dad still drives a Saturn.