Thursday, March 19, 2009

The last gasp of a dying brand.

As most US-based readers know, General Motors (GM), one of the “Big 3” US automakers, is now on the verge of bankruptcy. After receiving a $17-billion bailout from the government, GM is still losing billions of dollars each month.

To help stem the bleeding, GM recently announced a number of cost-cutting moves, including a plan to end production of a subsidiary brand called the Saturn Corporation by the end of 2010.

Launched in 1985 as a "different kind of car company", Saturn operated outside of the GM structure for many years. And during that time it really did feel like a different company. (In fact, I’ve bought two Saturn vehicles over the years and drove one to the office today.)

What made the company different?

Well, for starters there was an effective ad campaign that showed the company to be comprised of dedicated, hard-working men and women all pulling together under the common cause of making a better automobile.

There was a no-hassle, no haggling sales policy, by which the sticker price on the car was the actual price you paid for it—no tense back room negotiations by which some buyers got a better deal than others.

And importantly, there was an on-going customer communications effort to keep Saturn owners loyal to the brand. These included a regular stream of loyalty communications, including invites to an annual “owners” barbeque held at the brand’s main factory facility in Spring Hill, Tennessee.

But over the years, something changed.

As Saturn was slowly brought back into the GM fold, the warm and friendly correspondence disappeared. It was replaced by shrill and gimmicky mailings from the local dealer pitching the latest holiday promotion. And in time, Saturn didn’t feel a whole lot different than any other American car.

Now, there is a last ditch attempt to keep the Saturn brand alive.

Over the past year, a Saturn social networking site was set up with little fanfare in an attempt to reengage with owners. I recently stumbled upon it, and by the looks of the sporadic company postings, it’s not getting the attention it deserves.

Then, a few days ago I received a single-page, two-sided letter from a person identified as the General Manager of Saturn, a 22-year veteran of the company. In the letter she says that Saturn is investigating the option of forming an independent company, apart from GM, and to “stay tuned”.

There’s even an attempt to rekindle the old Saturn mojo, as the Saturn veteran pointed out “it feels a bit like it did back in the 1980s when the original Saturn project was being developed” and implores that “as loyal Saturn owners and enthusiasts, I know you support this brand.”

Only now, years after they’ve sent me a truly meaningful piece of communications, it feels like it’s too little, too late. The hard-earned emotional bonds of loyalty were taken for granted and over time slowly broken, replaced by, at best, ambivalence.

I’m reminded of the once classic car a friend has parked along side his driveway. He once planned on fixing it up, but never quite got around to it. And neglected year after year, this once sterling automobile is now a rusting heap, too far gone to ever bring back.


  1. I have been a loyal Saturn owner for years (currently still drive a VUE) but have all but decided to try a different brand next time around. I couldn't quite put my finger on what caused my decline in loyalty over the last few years, but I think you've articulated it well -- it simply no longer felt like a special thing to be a part of the Saturn brand. Maybe they can rekindle that, but I share your skepticism. Its a cautionary tale for other brands.

  2. Wrong, Tom. The purchase of Saturn by Penske gives this brand an entirely new life, this time a unique "rebirth" story. It will take more than marketing communications to make this a success, but it has great potential. Free of all the baggage of Detroit and GM management, this company will be a first -- a car company owned and managed by a retailer. The opportunity here to be truly customer-driven is huge. I can't wait to see how it's done. Design from the customer back, and outsource manufacturing. Wow! Revolutionary. Creative destruction in action.