Saturn's Rust-Proof Brand


My next car is going to be a Saturn. Let me clarify: my next sports car will be a Saturn Sky. Not a Lotus, Porsche, BMW, or Ferrari. O.K., I would take the Ferrari if offered, but I would buy a Saturn. Yes, this unabashed car guy has decided to go with the brand known for body panel gaps the size of the Black Canyon and wheezy motors that are more Cheney than Armstrong.

Why? Two reasons: First, built off the same platform as the new Pontiac Solstice, the Sky promises to be one tasty automobile, coupling a crisp origami design aesthetic with a really sweet mechanical package. Second, unlike those time-honored European sports-car marques, Saturn will deliver an ownership experience that goes far beyond the car itself. In other words, it's the Saturn brand I want to bring into my life, and the car is but one aspect of what I'm buying.

Why I'm making the switch is really a story about how far the Saturn brand is willing to go. Recently, a man called Saturn's customer-service number with a big problem: His daughter's car had broken down in Arizona, and she was stranded. He reported her location, her license plate number -- and the fact that her car was a Honda (HMC).

DIRECT ACTION. When the Saturn representative pointed this out to the upset father, he said "You're the company that cares about people, and that's why I called you." What would your company do? Saturn sent out a truck to pick her up, towed her Honda, and let her father know that she was safe.

Think about it: competitive brand, no warranty card, absolutely no reason to help. Except that there's no substitute for this kind of concrete action when it comes to creating a brand with real meaning. After hearing this anecdote, it's pretty clear what Saturn stands for.

THE SUM OF ALL EXPRESSIONS. How do great brands come to be? While some would have you believe that "building a brand" is as opaque a process as the formulation of Wall Street financial derivatives, the reality can be as simple and direct as this: a brand is about what you do, or don't do, and not what you say.

It's the sum total of all your actions. Yes, positioning messages and advertising imagery play a supporting role in developing your brand identity, but what really matters is what you do and how that makes people feel.

And everything matters. If you want to make a great brand, you need to pay attention to all the ways it gets expressed in the world. How is the user manual written? How does the off/on switch sound? How do you hire people? How does the receptionist answer the phone? All of these things are as important as expressions of your brand as an ad campaign.

TRACK RECORD. A good brand, then, is one for which every expression has been consciously designed from the customer's point of view.

Consider, for example, how the three great new automotive brands of the post WWII era -- Ferrari, Porsche, and Honda -- achieved their luster. Each was a case of a clear brand vision, expertly expressed. Each was led by an iconoclast obsessed with making every brand expression a thing of quality, elegance, and beauty.

Going one step further, each leader placed his cars in competition at Le Mans, the Targa Florio, Monaco, and everywhere in between, as a way of truly being the best rather than simply saying it.

No amount of advertising, I would argue, could have given those brands the prestige they earned on the track. In other words, those brands achieved greatness because they were fully and completely expressed in both atoms and action. Easier said than done.

WHY MAVENS DRIVE SATURN. Poor old Saturn hasn't had a compelling offering for more than a decade. A misguided lack of investment in product innovation saw the carmaker quickly fall behind competitors such as Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai.

And even within a car category associated more with frugality and rationality than sybaritic pleasure, the Saturn driving experience has become a huge bummer relative to the bubbly champagne-Jacuzzi sensation one gets piloting a Honda. As of early 2005, I would argue, Saturn's product range had become so uninspiring that the brand was teetering on the brink of extinction. Or at least irrelevance.

But this lackluster product experience only underscores my larger point about brands. If our frame of reference for what makes a great brand were limited to only tangible offerings, then Saturn would be a goner. It's the collection of intangible expressions -- like rescuing your daughter when her Honda breaks down -- that has somehow kept the Saturn brand strong in spite of its less-than-inspirational cars.

APPLE'S TASTE. In the words of GM (GM) Car Czar Bob Lutz: "What would you do if you had a brand whose customer-service reputation was that high for that long despite having a narrow, aging product lineup? I, for one, would first get down on my knees and thank the Maker for the finest retail network in the industry."

So what happens when Saturn finally cranks out some products that make customers happy, in and of themselves? For a hint, look at (surprise surprise!) Apple (AAPL). From the Apple Store to the iPod to the bag you carry it home in to iTunes, every expression of the Apple brand is designed to deliver a consistent customer experience.

Just as happy iPod customers fueled Apple's brand renaissance, happy Saturn Sky drivers will evangelize the auto maker's message of affordable design and superlative service. That's brand building of the purest sort. And at the end of the day, it's the only kind that matters.

STARTING WITH CUSTOMERS. How do you do it? The only way to get to a great brand is to design from your customers in. Get your marketers and engineers and designers out of their quantitative market reports and out into the real world. Understand emotion. Understand what makes for a compelling experience, and where you fall short.

In reality, the only limit on your company's brand is you. Saturn shows how a good brand can be developed even in the face of mediocre products and limited marketing resources. Are you willing to rescue a stranded Honda when your name is Saturn? How far are you willing to go?

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