Saturn Is a Missed Chance at a Marketing Experiment

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

We're sorry to see Roger Penske bail on the Saturn deal for the basic reason that we saw great potential in the concept of an auto marketer without factories. Saturn could have, once again, become a different kind of car company.

Many of the best marketers today long ago ditched their factories. Nike designs and markets shoes -- and outsources manufacturing. Ditto, Levi Strauss. Apple designs and markets computers and iPhones, but it outsources most of its manufacturing. Gap Inc. outsources production. Boston Beer outsources much of its brewing.

Saturn was a great brand with a reputation for good customer service. It was an ideal candidate to pursue the concept of an auto brand without factories.

It's not a new concept for an auto company to market vehicles made by others. Isuzu built the old Honda Passport. Kia assembled the Ford Festiva. Ford made the Mazda Navajo. Chrysler sourced cars from Mitsubishi as far back as the '70s (Dodge Colt). Toyota today outsources some Camry assembly to Subaru.

But the idea of a pure-play auto marketer -- a company focused on marketing, not manufacturing -- is intriguing.

Imagine this: Take the fleet of Saturn stores and fill them with Saturns made in China and India or from scattered global auto companies that have excess manufacturing capacity and want to start or expand distribution in the U.S.

Yes, there would be challenges (and irony) in Saturn -- which trumpeted its Spring Hill, Tenn., factory -- becoming plantless, a car company with no roots. Could you maintain quality? Could you maintain product continuity? Would Saturn have the scale to design and engineer cars, or would that be outsourced, too? How would consumers react to a company whose "factory warranty" didn't have any factory backing up the claim?

As we deal with overcapacity in the marketplace, a more flexible and collaborative approach to manufacturing makes sense for all automakers. Let the consumers decide which brands they want -- without it meaning building new plants unlikely to be needed for the long-term or closing plants that are still useful.

It is a fascinating concept. We wish we could have seen it play out with Saturn.

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