There's no doubt that 2006 will be a memorable year for Saturn. After being ignored for the better part of a decade, the import-chasing division of General Motors gets four new vehicles this year.
First comes the Sky roadster, a low-volume image car due in the spring. Next, the mid-sized Aura sedan arrives in early summer. It uses underpinnings from GM's German Opel division. After that, the Outlook crossover lands in dealerships, and then in late summer Saturn gets GM's first volume gasoline-electric hybrid, the Vue Green Line.
Saturn dealers are depending on GM to deliver high-quality, glitch-free vehicles on time and with competitive prices. They also are counting on GM to craft a marketing campaign that resonates with consumers. Dealers don't want these new products lost in the clutter, says Rob Cochran, chairman of Saturn's Franchise Operations Team. Cochran spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett.
Many people blame ineffective advertising for the bungled launch of the L-series sedan and wagon. You've got four new products coming in 2006. Are dealers concerned about Saturn's ability to develop an advertising strategy that supports so many new vehicles in one year?
There's no dealer group in America that someone somewhere doesn't have a concern about their brand's advertising. With that being said, I think for the most part that Saturn has identified clearly what they need to be and how they need to present themselves to the public in a confident, forward-thinking manner. Now it is a matter of getting each execution to connect with that. A few years ago, we were kind of reaching and trying to figure out what we were supposed to be. I think Saturn has answered that question. It's just a tactical issue now making sure that each commercial meets that standard.
What's the difference between Saturn's Franchise Operations Team and the usual dealer council?
The FOT is more than a typical dealer council. The Saturn retailer agreement provides the FOT with more authority than a typical council. We actually get to vote on certain things, and certain things have to be run past us. We get to participate, and it's a great process. The level of communication between the retailers and Saturn personnel is very, very good.
What's the No. 1 thing Saturn can do to help its dealers in 2006?
Just execute the launches.
Will most Saturn dealers have enough help to handle higher volumes?
We'll need to get staff ramped up, unquestionably. We'll need enough salespeople to be able to handle the process. The Sky is a step, but a big step will be the Aura because there is more volume attached to that.
At one time Saturn had very loyal customers. Is that still so? How have Saturn's customers changed in the last five years?
It's still a very loyal owner base. Certainly as we have not had products to meet the demand of our owner base, there have been some people who have left the family. But I think for the most part there is a very strong connection between the people who have purchased Saturns and the retailer, more so than the typical retailer or dealer. You are not just purchasing sheet metal. You're purchasing part of the brand. You see that represented in the various J.D. Power surveys.
Have customers noticed that Saturn has gone from being pretty much an independent part of General Motors to just another division?
I don't think so. The only people who notice that are the people who are reading and seeing articles about what's going on within GM and how Saturn relates to that. I don't think that from a showroom or product appearance that a customer walks in and sees any noticeable difference.
How satisfied are dealers with Saturn?
The Saturn dealer body is increasingly satisfied with Saturn. But there's a lot riding on this year, a lot of anticipation. We want this year to go well, and if it doesn't go as well as expected, there probably will be some disappointment.
Saturn tinkered with rebates and then pulled back. Are dealers satisfied with Saturn's pricing strategy?
The pricing strategy has always been simple with Saturn, and I think that is part of the brand's appeal. For a while Saturn got into some complexity of incentives, and now Saturn has gone the other way. And that's smart, because the Saturn customer doesn't want that. That's the way the sales consultants and the customers have been trained. To muddy up the waters just adds more complexity into a network that was not made for complexity.
How can Saturn remain competitive without incentives?
They have to create products that consumers demand. Step two is competitive pricing. And then, when the time comes when there needs to be some type of incentive, they need to be below-board incentives, much like luxury brands do with lease enhancements.
The Sky roadster could present a touchy situation for Saturn. The brand has never had a vehicle that commanded more than sticker price. Will Saturn dealers be padding the Sky's price?
That's a good question. Saturn has always been one price. But I can't speak for the network. I can speak for our stores. We will sell it for MSRP. I would think the majority of dealers will sell it for MSRP.
Does the Sky have the potential to expand Saturn's appeal to customers who have never shopped the brand?
It's going to be a huge step. But it is in a segment that is not a volume segment. Everyone agrees that the Sky is a great start. But as we get the Aura coming mid-year, the success of the Sky launch will have a good impact on how the Aura does coming out of the box. I think all the arrows are pointing to what should be a breakthrough year for Saturn.
Are Saturn dealers anxious to add the Vue Green Line gasoline-electric hybrid SUV?
I think the Green Line vehicles, starting with the Vue, are just a natural fit for Saturn and what Saturn means in the public eye. Saturn is a responsible, upfront car company. I just don't think that there is any better fit for environmentally conscious cars within the Saturn family. It will further extend Saturn sales, further extend Saturn's credibility and further extend the brand.
Is GM asking Saturn dealers to upgrade their stores to prepare for these new products?
Some of the facilities still have not undergone what Saturn calls the "Red Two" updated retail environmental design. So they encourage us, and there are some financial incentives for us to get up to speed. But it is not an adversarial kind of thing.