Saturn's Curious Orbit

David Kiley

Colleague David Welch this week penned a nice piece in Businessweek on Saturn's gambit to go upscale with new designs influenced by General Motors's European styling studio. The irony here, though, is as thick as a phone-company help-desk associate.

For years, Saturn had a crystal clear brand image. It was the helpful, no-haggle, customer-comes-first brand. The product was so-so. But the brand image was unique and smithed like iron. That's a contrast to GM's other children--Buick, the defunct Oldsmobile, Chevy cars and Pontiac. Now, GM is lavishing new product on Saturn, including the new minivan, a Roadster, a future slick sedan and a full-size SUV. But where is Saturn's image now? Prices went up. Incentives have been laid on. And advertising has rambled around themes as diverse as a woman gassing up her car that's occupied by a younger beau to people pretending to be cars. Saturn's advertising was once a benchmark of Madison Avenue: the young girl buying her first car; the teacher whose letter and picture were handled by the people on the assembly line as they built her car; the Saturn owners gathering at Spring Hill, Tennessee. These ads are remembered ten years after they stopped running and are in text books on advertising. What made Saturn special was the feeling owners had about belonging to a better brand. That's gold in the universe of brand management. It's a pity that the caretakers at GM didn't see it and appreciate what they had. By starving the brand of new product, they starved the customers of reward.

So, now they are showering Saturn with new product over the next two years to make up for lost time. But, as advertising over the last two years shows, the company seems to have almost no idea what to do with the brand. Ads are no longer memorable or special. Despite being created by a first-rate agency--Goodby Silverstein, San Francisco--the advertising drifts to the background, just like Pontiac's and Buick's. Taking a brand from extraordinary to ordinary just before investing $3 billion in new product is a pretty poor strategy.

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