What Car Brands Can Learn From Saturn's Rise and Fall

Going Back to an Innovative, Consumer-Driven Culture Can Save GM

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Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith
In a few weeks we will learn the ultimate fate of GM's Saturn brand. A number of options are on the table, but it is now clear that Saturn is no longer part of GM's long-term future. How did a business-school case study, and a rare moment of GM shining brilliance, fall so far so fast? Yet, while Saturn has lost its trajectory in GM's orbit, it continues to point the way car companies and many other brands need to go in these challenging times.

Back in the '80s, GM was getting hammered by the imports and GM CEO Roger Smith decided it was high time to fight back with a multibillion-dollar skunk works code-named Saturn. Its mission: an all-out effort to push back the imports and return new innovations to the broader GM organization.

Saturn was granted autonomy from GM's bureaucracy and let customer needs and wants drive its decision-making rather than the often inward and cost-driven approach GM had used for so many years. Operationally, under the air cover of Mr. Smith, Saturn was well-funded and granted its own board of directors and unique autonomy within the corporation.

Saturn launch ad
Saturn launch ad

'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.

Kevin Smith 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 Campbell-Ewald, and has 20 years of automotive experience.
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.

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