'THE SATURN DIFFERENCE': Hal Riney's launch ads
became the voice of the brand.
This freedom from GM's legacy and an entrepreneurial brand culture
drove innovation in all aspects of the business, from car
engineering and manufacturing to labor relations and employee
compensation to Saturn's breakthrough customer experience. It all
had a clever handle, too: "the Saturn Difference."
How it lost its way
Saturn built an organic brand with a powerful internal brand
culture, driven by the customer, and the results were staggering.
Saturn won buyers back from the imports. Its clever product
launches surprisingly exceeded the lofty quality and resale
measures established by Honda and Toyota and claimed third-party
customer-satisfaction awards year after year. The brilliant Hal
Riney launch ads became Saturn's voice and told the brand story in
a genuine way that touched people's hearts. What's more, Saturn
would go beyond traditional advertising to truly bond with its
owners. The Saturn Homecoming owner event became the first of its
kind in the industry, and customers were smitten by the way they
were treated by this daring and caring little car company. They
rewarded Saturn with an unprecedented level of customer loyalty and
became part of the Saturn cult of brand advocates. Saturn was truly
living the brand promise.
But soon Saturn was losing its way. Some speculate that GM saw
Saturn as being a finished product that didn't require significant
ongoing investment. And internal politics were beginning to
surface, too. Soon, Saturn was a target for other GM portfolio
brands as they competed for scarce product and marketing resources
in GM's overpopulated brand portfolio. In effect, the freestanding
Saturn division had become a bothersome internal rival, nearly as
menacing as outside competitors.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is principal of 360 Brand Machine, an automotive
strategic-marketing and brand consultancy. He is a former senior VP
and director-strategic planning at both JWT
, and has 20 years of
And, where product is the lifeblood of any automotive brand, and
where car model changes every four to five years are normal, Saturn
vehicles saw only one redesign in their first decade of existence.
Ironically, Saturn had the most loyal buyers in the industry but
had no new products to keep those customers in the flock. And when
it was finally granted new product from a mandated "common
platform" strategy, some of the most homely cars imaginable emerged
-- from the bland Saturn LS midsize to the ugly science experiment
known as the Ion. With those products, GM broke the Saturn promise.
Today, GM deserves credit for its last-ditch multimillion-dollar
product investment into Saturn. Its showroom features a dazzling
array of stylish new products off common GM platforms. But here's
the rub: There's not much in a Saturn showroom you can't find in
any other GM brand. It's no longer a different kind of car, and
it's no longer a different kind of car company either, as the
original Saturn organization is mostly folded into broader GM. It's
all just not working, and the founding Saturn promise is even
further in the rearview mirror. And sadly, in GM's survival
environment, Saturn is expendable.
All marketers can learn important lessons from GM's Saturn
experiment -- such as the power of a differentiating branding idea
and breakthrough innovation guided by consumers. Such as the need
for a unifying internal brand culture and truly living a genuine
tagline through all the brand touch points. Like the need to stay a
product generation of ahead of your customers, and the idea that
brands need constant feeding and the realization that brand
portfolios can quickly get too big to adequately support.
For GM, hopefully something can be salvaged from Saturn. Indeed,
the original Saturn branding idea, and the requisite organizational
structure and execution, is exactly what the broader GM
organization needs in this critical transformational environment.
Ironically, as Saturn is now jettisoned, perhaps Saturn can finally
complete its founding mission to give back critical lessons to save
GM and move it forward. But if GM doesn't survive, Saturn's
original platform remains a brilliant case study in consumer-driven
integrated marketing. Chances are, this hasn't slipped past another
number of carmakers planning entry into the U.S. market and
possibly looking to take Saturn's top-shelf retail network and its
old brand playbook off GM's hands.