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A different kind of cool

GM makes over Saturn, adds stylish, modern cars to lineup while keeping core value
Josee Valcourt / The Detroit News


In a game of automotive word association, Saturn is likely to elicit responses like haggle-free, as in its pricing, or plastic, as in its body panels.

Cool? Probably not. At least not yet. But that's the image General Motors Corp. hopes consumers will soon associate with the 16-year-old brand as it undergoes a critical rebirth.

"Our task at the moment is to let the world know that we have something on our hands like never before, which are beautiful, beautiful products," Saturn General Manager Jill Lajdziak said in a recent interview.

For Saturn, which several years ago almost drove off into the sunset for good, cool is transforming its lineup with eye-catching models like the Sky roadster and Aura sedan.

Cool is introducing potential buyers to sales managers at their local Saturn dealerships through online video and tackling consumer questions and gripes in live-chat sessions on the Saturn Web site.

Cool is rebuilding the brand while sticking to its core value: offering consumers a no-pressure, no-gimmicks car-buying experience.

"It's not any one thing," Lajdziak said. "It's your actions that make you cool."

Analysts say Saturn is on the right path with its vehicle lineup.

In addition to the stylish Aura and sexy Sky, new models for 2007 include the Vue Green Line hybrid SUV and the Outlook, a crossover utility that seats
eight adults. The vehicles hit the high-volume small and midsize family sedan segments and the fast-growing market for crossovers, which combine the
roominess of an SUV with the driving dynamics of a car.

"It's clear that GM is investing what it takes to remake the brand's image," said Karl Brauer, editor-at-large for the car-buying Web site, Edmunds.com. "They've never had a better shot than they've got now."

Three years ago, when Saturn executives mapped out the revitalization plan, they studied auto and non-automotive brands such as Starbucks, Target and Apple Computer -- known for connecting with consumers.

"Automotive or non-automotive," Lajdziak said, "great brands survive over time if you have a focus on great product, great retail experience and great marketing and communications."

Saturn had all three when it was established in 1990 as "a different kind of car company" and GM's response to a flood of small cars from Japanese makers.

Shoppers were won over by Saturn's sales approach and its vehicles, built in Spring Hill, Tenn. Thousands flocked to the plant to attend "homecoming" events and celebrate their vehicles with line workers.

Saturn became a business case study because it quickly earned what can take decades to build -- brand equity.

But a scant and aging vehicle lineup -- more than a decade passed before the original S-Series was replaced by the Ion -- eventually disappointed Saturn enthusiasts. Sales dived.

At one point, GM considered scrapping the underperforming brand as it had with Oldsmobile.

"It came down to if we keep Saturn the way it is and not grow the portfolio, it won't make it in the marketplace," Lajdziak said. "So the only choice here was we don't keep it or we absolutely grow it."

The brand's strong reputation convinced GM it was worth saving. About $3 billion was earmarked for new products.

"When you look at dealership rankings in terms of customer satisfaction, Saturn is right up the top with Lexus," said Erich Merkle, an analyst with Grand Rapids-based IRN Inc. "Why would you kill Saturn? It's easier to feed that brand with products than it is to take some other brand and try to get that type of dealer satisfaction score."

Saturn's product push is just getting started, but demand is improving. After dropping 21.8 percent in 2004 to their lowest level since 1992, sales rebounded last year, growing 0.8 percent on stronger sales of an updated Vue and higher demand for the Ion amid rising gas prices.

Trying to be the cool kid on the block could come at a cost.

Some fans oppose Saturn's shift away from polymer-clad designs to now include steel. They say the material, which prevented dings, defined the Saturn brand.

"Now they're going to be more like every other car on the road," said Edward Szymanski, who has owned several Saturns, including a 2006 Vue.

But even loyalists like Szymanski find it hard to walk away.

"The no-haggle price," he said. "That would keep me going back."

A sense of sincerity at Saturn dealerships is why customers like Joseph Salerno of Flat Rock return..

On Thursday in the showroom at Saturn of Troy, he was looking to replace his Ion with a newer one. But once he sat in the Aura, he was torn.

"I'm going to have to chew on that," he said.

So with the buzz building, is Saturn suddenly cool?

"It's going to take a while," said Steve Miller of Brandweek.com. "They've had some pretty staid products. To bounce right back and be cool, that's going to be a tough one."

But Saturn's partnership with Google.com is a great start, Miller said. Consumers browsing Saturn's Web site can watch video clips of Saturn general managers in their local dealerships.

"That's really breaking new ground. The video clips is the most impressive and is certainly an admission to cool."


http://www.detroitnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060930/AUTO01/609300358/1148
 
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