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I noticed, with great interest, a brief article on the Saturn brand's "second coming," in Sunday's NY Times....


Early on in the 1990s, Saturn had been a shining example of transparent marketing to women. The no-dicker sticker they were known for tended to women's ways of buying without thinking pink.
The tagline back then was "A Different Kind of Car Company," and that definitely seemed in line with the community it built (where Saturn owners met up for weekends at the Spring Hill, TN, facilities to get to know the folks who put their cars together) and its emotion-filled ad campaigns (a dealer handing the key to a young, female, first-time car buyer, for one).
But, where did all that positive momentum go? According to the article, the assembly lines in Spring Hill are closing in March, due to this fact, among others: "The number of returning buyers fell to 27 percent by 2000, from 52 percent in the early 1990s." Yikes.
Saturn fans originally flocked to the company (some despite its GM roots) to check out this "different kind of car company." But, today Saturn is no longer independent of GM, which makes it a lot less "different."
There is now a very big disconnect from its original independent, community-focused branding - and, women, who had been key Saturn customers, have serious radar for such inconsistency. Minor glitches in branding vs. experience continuity are one thing and can be forgiveable, but, over time, Saturn customers have seen nothing new and the company has become lax in maintaining connection with its initially very passionate customer base.
As Pat Fallon and Fred Senn write in their new book, Juicing the Orange (HBS Press, 2006):

"...GM and Saturn took a risk in basing their branding no on the car but on a radically re-thought relationship between buyers and dealers. This brand position required the total commitment of employees, dealers and salespeople (and they pulled it off gallantly), but we argue that the real risk would have been for GM to ignore the emotional truth that Riney's [referring to the ad agency, Hal Riney] planners had uncovered."

Fallon and Senn go on to mention how Saturn marketers neglected the advantage they had initially created... which leads us back to the NY Times article.
It's too bad. I loved pointing to it as a great example of effective marketing to women that didn't alienate men, and clearly all sorts of customers were ready for that different kind of car company (and still are!). But Saturn couldn't live up to the expectations it created for itself.
The company is coming out with new models, hoping to regain the attention and loyalty of those people who originally loved the brand, without really liking the cars enough to repeat the purchase. Saturn's tagline is now "Like always. Like never before," and it will be interesting to see if car buyers... well, buy it!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Andrea Learned
Andrea Learned is a noted author, blogger, and expert on gender-based consumer behavior. Her current focus is on sustainability from both the consumer and the organizational perspectives. Andrea contributes to the Huffington Post and provides sustainability-focused commentary for Vermont Public Radio.