The General Motors division, touted as "a different kind of company" since its 1990 debut, is readying its biggest new-product blitz since driving onto the scene as an import fighter. But Saturn, which is seeking an agency for the crucial fall 2002 launch of its Ion entry model, no longer looks so different.
The once-independent, risk-taking brand was brought into GM's orbit nearly a year ago.
"The real question is, can Saturn maintain its purity?" said Jim Sanfilippo, executive vice president of auto consulting firm AMCI in Warren, Mich. Consolidating Saturn's marketing, sales and engineering operations into GM "created a conflict from its original path," he said.
Saturn started an agency review in November for the fall 2002 launch of the Ion, the first complete redo of the original small S series car, a launch that could snare the lion's share of Saturn's estimated $300 million budget. Publicis Groupe's Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco, which has handled the brand since launch, will be in the review. Saturn plans to choose an agency by April 1.
"It's clear whoever cracks this (Ion review) gets the whole thing," said one executive familiar with the auto business, adding Saturn wouldn't mind having an agency back in Detroit, since Saturn, now on a short leash, "is now much more Motor City than Motor City West."
Riney executives declined to comment. Jill Lajdziak, Saturn's vice president for sales, service and marketing, was not available for comment.
'In Saturn's hands'When asked about the role of C.J. Fraleigh, GM's director of corporate advertising and marketing, a spokesman said: "Saturn and (Fraleigh) are definitely communicating on this issue. It's in Saturn's hands."
Fraleigh, a former executive with PepsiCo's Pepsi-Cola Co., joined GM last January, taking the place of ad executive Phil Guarascio.
Don Hudler, the former CEO of Saturn who is trying to buy six Saturn stores in Texas, said he cautioned Saturn leaders about the review's poor timing amid a new-product blitz. "If someone else gets the business … it takes time for any transition, and you run the risk of something running astray."
Saturn was developed in the late 1980s to woo buyers turned off by domestic cars and to prove Americans could triumph over Japanese imports. Haggling with salesmen was replaced with no-haggle prices.
"Back in the early days, we tried not to tie Saturn to the GM brand. We avoided that," said Tom Shaver, Saturn's first director of consumer marketing, who left in 1992 and is a senior partner at J.D. Power & Associates. Much of Saturn's success can be attributed to Riney, he said.
But Saturn's positioning soon was copied. And the Japan-fighting image became less of a differentiator as Japanese companies invested in-and promoted American factories.
Wrong approachSaturn set an industry record in 1995 in J.D. Power's customer sales satisfaction susrvey and stayed on top through 1998. But it fell to sixth place in Power's 1999 study.
Dave Power, chairman of the consultancy, told Saturn dealers that autumn: "We are seeing more of a GM approach to decision making within Saturn that is affecting its original corporate culture."
Saturn retook the top spot for the past two years.
GM, with other brands to feed, starved Saturn for new product. Until 1999, Saturn offered only its S series line of small cars. Loyal owners who wanted a move-up vehicle abandoned the brand. Saturn finally introduced a second model in summer 1999, the mid-sized L series.
The marketer's first sport-utility, the Vue, is trickling into showrooms, and ads from Riney will begin in January. A freshened L series comes next summer. Ion rolls out next fall as successor to the S series, which accounted for more than 60 percent of unit sales through October.