When Saturn was born in 1986, its mission was nothing less than recreating General Motors' approach to small cars and to salesmanship.
Saturn did revolutionize the traditional selling and ownership experience, and achieved breakthroughs in manufacturing quality and labor relations. Many baby boomers, looking for an American-built small-car alternative, forsook their Hondas and Toyotas to come 'home' to Saturn.
But Saturn never really ignited a revolution in GM marketing. Instead, GM allowed the brand's gloss to fade by refusing for years to expand or even significantly update Saturn's two-model lineup of small cars. Meanwhile, competitors chipped away at Saturn's marketing distinctiveness by learning to coddle their own buyers and owners. As a result, Saturn sales have stagnated at an annual rate of about 250,000 units in recent years.
Now a turnaround may be at hand. This summer Saturn will, for the first time, extend its offering with two crucial new vehicle lines: a compact sport-utility and a mid-sized sedan and wagon. Propo-nents say the new models will revive the division's fortunes quickly. But some analysts warn the unit risks losing its raison d'etre by becoming too 'GM-ified.'
Caught in GM's web?
John Hoffecker, global automotive practice leader for A.T. Kearney Inc. in the consulting firm's Southfield, Mich., office, predicts Saturn's revival could be as spectacular in the U.S. market as Volkswagen's has been since it introduced the New Beetle last year. The company's new models, he suggests, will be 'pushed with a strong brand image by a retailing approach that competitors still can't match.'
Other analysts aren't so sure it will be that easy. Saturn, says Jeff Schuster, manager of forecasting and product planning for J.D. Power and Associates in Agoura Hills, Calif., 'is slowly being pulled into the GM web.'
John Robson, a director of Wolff Olins, a brand consultancy for automotive companies and other clients, with offices in London and New York City, agrees. 'Saturn is part of GM whether they want that or not,' he says, 'and they have to find a place in the GM portfolio.'
The difficulties in blending with GM while retaining its independence will be underscored by Saturn's new products. Its new sport-utility will be produced at the company's Spring Hill, Tenn., plant. But the mid-sized sedan and wagon, built on a platform derived from one GM uses in Europe, will come from GM's assembly plant in Wilming-ton, Del. The vehicles, suggests Schuster at J.D. Power, 'will have more of a GM feeling to them.'
Extending the promise
Joe Kennedy, vice president of sales and marketing for Saturn until he retired in February, shrugged off those concerns.
'I don't think anyone believes it's just something in the water in Spring Hill,' he said. Besides, he noted, Saturn's new president and chairman, Cynthia Trudell, was formerly plant manager at Wilmington, and she was replaced there by Harvey Thomas, formerly plant manager at Spring Hill. The only challenge now, said Kennedy, is 'teaching the market that the Saturn promise is available in multiple segments.'
Saturn will be relying heavily on the support of its loyal customers as it unveils its new products this summer. And it will be counting on the resiliency of a brand that already has proved its durability.