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Saturn and the trap of “brand experience”

October 1, 2009

Ad Industry,Creative,Insight,Opinions,RAF

On a warm Spring day in 1991, my brother Tim visited Rochester with his first new car – a Saturn S series coupe. We took it out on Kings Highway through Durand Park for a road test. Drove ok. But it looked different and Tim was really proud of it. He had a story to tell, something about cookies and a song from the dealer. He was a Saturn brand evangelist.

Tim’s evangelism lasted another year perhaps. The Saturn brand meanwhile soldiered on, right up to this past Wednesday when GM announced that a planned takeover by auto mogul Roger Penske had fallen through. It appears the Saturn division will close next year.

Even before the current auto slump, Saturn had become a staple of MBA case studies on how to kill a promising business. Conventional wisdom has it that the meddling execs of GM killed the quirkiness in an effort to lower costs. The predictable cycle commenced, with loyal owners spun off each year.

I’d like to introduce an alternate theory: Saturn was dead on arrival. That it even got off the ground is a testament to brilliant advertising from Hal Riney and a decent dealer network. The problem was the cars – uniquely styled at times, but nothing special in performance, quality, or safety. Saturn created a compelling brand narrative, but not a good product.

Saturn has failed spectacularly, but not uniquely. Countless brands try to create a “brand experience” before doing the hard work of legitimate differentiation. My favorite category is airtravel – remember Song or Ted (we want to be like Jet Blue, can we do it without actually changing?).

Sadly, agencies and marketers are often asked to create the story and then canned when it doesn’t connect. Wish I had a more uplifting message. Cheers!


P.S. while appreciating some of Hal Riney’s Saturn tv work, came across his work helping to elect Ronald Reagan. Politics aside, far more memorable than anything I’ve seen lately from candidates.