Saturn: The End of a Great Brand Experiment

I was disheartened to hear General Motors plans to phase out the Saturn brand as part of its fight for survival. Saturn, along with Saab and Hummer, will be phased out in 2009. These brands have been on the chopping block since GM’s financial troubles came to a head last year. In addition, the Pontiac brand will be phased out in 2010 as well as major reductions in employee headcount and dealerships.

Of all the announcements made by GM President and CEO Fritz Henderson today, elimination of Saturn is particularly sad from a marketing standpoint. Saturn was launched in the early 1990s with the promise of a new era within GM. Even the ad slogan supported the notion: “A different kind of car, a different kind of company.” Consumer response to Saturn was very strong in the early years. Then, consumer preferences shifted toward larger vehicles and SUVs. Saturn was ill positioned to meet that trend with its focus on economy cars.

Saturn also suffered from a lack of resource support within GM as well as bad managerial decision making. One role for Saturn was supposed to be to serve as an experimental brand. For example, the EV1 electric car that Saturn tested in the mid 1990s would have put GM ahead of competitors in the race to offer alternative fuel vehicles. The EV1 was tested in California, and the company eventually destroyed all of the vehicles once their leases expired rather than move forward with production.

I own two Saturns and have followed the brand closely for more than 10 years while researching it for a case study I prepared and subsequently updated for marketing textbooks. From a brand building standpoint, GM did many things right to get Saturn off the ground. GM’s Henderson made an interesting statement at the press conference announcing the changes saying “brands are good for offense.” The problem is GM is in defensive mode. The company is resizing itself to reflect the reality of a smaller U.S. auto market. Saturn will be missed… at least by this owner.