GM's CEO, Rick Wagoner, has opined that the automaker's biggest blunder was to walk away from the electric car.

In my view, however, GM's biggest strategic blunder was its failure to view Saturn strategically—and as a consequence not allowing it to fulfill its destiny as a domestic competitor to Toyota, Nissan, and Honda that could actually win.

As the company makes hard decisions in the struggle to survive, the challenge to GM will be its ability to learn from—and not compound—that mistake.

Introduced in 1990, Saturn was for many years surpassed in JD Powers ratings by only Lexus, Infinity, and Cadillac—much more expensive brands. It attracted a host of best-car awards. But it was the customer experience that made Saturn stand out.

For starters, there was a "no-haggle" price policy, made possible because adjacent dealers were sister companies with common ownership. In each dealership, customers were greeted by a salaried sales agent who would answer questions about the car in a relaxed atmosphere. Buyers would be treated as part of the family; they would see their picture on the wall and be invited to monthly cookouts.

Saturn could deliver this experience because it was truly was, as its ads said, "a different kind of company."

At its outset, a team of 99 people created a new culture based on teamwork, partnering, and treating the customer with respect. The new plant in Spring Hills, Tenn. had a simple labor contract that consisted of a few paragraphs rather than the volumes of legalese elsewhere at GM.

What was truly remarkable was the intensity of loyalty that Saturn generated among its customers. People got married in their Saturn. They acted not only as advocates but also as sales consultants to prospective buyers. And over 30,000 of them came to Spring Hill for a party in 1994. (Shades of Harley Davidson.)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David A. Aaker is vice-chairman of Prophet (www.prophet.com), Professor Emeritus at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley, and executive adviser to Dentsu. His latest book, his 14th, is Spanning Silos: the New CMO Imperative. Reach him at daaker@prophet.com.