In his first public speech since becoming GM's group VP in charge of North American sales, service and marketing last December, Mr. Zarrella several times singled out Saturn for the sort of brand building the automaker needs to do in its other marketing units.
GM insiders say Mr. Zarrella's view of Saturn as a marketing success story has increased the unit's credibility at a crucial time. GM is facing important decisions about whether to expand production and invest in new products for Saturn Corp., the subsidiary created to test new ways of doing business while battling import brands.
According to reports, Saturn will be allowed to expand by developing new products in tandem with GM's Adam Opel AG operations in Europe. One future model would be based on the midsize Opel Vectra sedan, while another sedan and coupe would be built off the smaller Astra.
Saturn agency Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco, has played a big role by creating friendly, understated advertising that emphasizes the relationship of Saturn owners to their vehicles.
Mr. Zarrella said Saturn's job in GM's lineup will be to continue providing products and consumer-friendly service that have created enthusiastic customers.
"Saturn has established itself among consumers who would otherwise consider small, Japanese import cars as a brand that they trust and respect," Mr. Zarrella said.
He also pointed to Saturn and Honda as examples of brands that attract buyers without needing to resort to promotions such as consumer rebates.
"Both have established such a solid equity based on quality, value and trust that price is low in the consideration for purchase," he said.
In Mr. Zarrella's scheme for GM brands, Oldsmobile will be positioned as the step-up choice for Saturn owners. So while Saturn competes with American Honda Motor Co.'s Honda brand, Oldsmobile would go up against Honda's upscale Acura brand.
Knox Ramsey, Oldsmobile's general marketing manager, said Saturn's "main strength is its non-product strategy," referring to the customer-friendly focus.
Oldsmobile has moved in that direction by de-emphasizing price haggling and by training its dealers in Saturn's culture as a prelude to selling the Aurora, the $30,000 luxury sedan that debuted last year.