October 7, 2009

RIP: Saturn

Posted in Branding at 8:47 pm by R

Back in May, I discussed the serious brand issues General Motors was dealing with as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and considered potentially selling off GM brands Hummer and Saturn. Well, it has come to pass that Saturn is having a stake put through its proverbial heart after a sale to Penske Automotive Group fell through.

Saturn had a lot of potential when it emerged as a subsidiary brand for GM. They wanted something fresh and totally different. And for a few seasons of cars, they delivered on that promise. But eventually, Saturn’s vehicles looked like any other GM model with a Saturn logo slapped on the grill.

Ultimately, Saturn (and GM) failed to deliver on the brand promise for Saturn. This I believe was the opportunity and the pitfall for the Saturn sale.

At the heart of Saturn were some really great characteristics: Innovation, personality, responsibility, fresh appeal and an air of “elevated every-man” if you will. These things were all assets to the potential buyer (Penske) in the possible sale of Saturn. But the outright betrayal on those brand promises would have required a serious investment to resuscitate the brand.

By no means am I saying this sale fell through because the brand was too damaged. Goodness no! Companies and their brands have recovered from much worse (a la Audi in the mid ’90s — That being said I’d totally rock a Q5 now, clean diesel of course). But if you have to look at all the aspects of a business as part of a significant purchase, a damaged brand has to go in the con list.

So the Saturn saga ends and an automotive brand is laid to rest.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from Saturn it’s the critical importance of remaining true to your brand characteristics in EVERYTHING you do.

Even as a subsidiary brand, it might have been a much different story if Saturn had insisted on honoring its own brand promises. The cars would have been different, the customer experience would have been different and, if Saturn found itself in the same situation it faced in March, the end could very well have been different.

So take a moment of silence in memory of Saturn, and go be true to your brand as a way of honoring the ringed planet’s automotive name sake.



1 Comment »

  1. gsbizblog said,

    Excellent column. I completely agree that Saturn could have been MUCH more competitive than any of the other GM brands and actually helped GM survive and grow, if the company had tried to learn something from Saturn’s early years. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be . . . probably for the same reasons that the division died: GM management thought they were too smart to learn.

    As we should have expected from GM, the Saturn idea was good; the implementation was mediocre; and the strategy over the last 15 or so years has been extremely poor.

    I have my own take on the situation on my blog at: http://corporatedeathspiral.blogspot.com

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