Thursday, October 01, 2009

Saturn: The Long Good Bye

What do Saturn and the movies "Ghost" and "The Sixth Sense" have in common? The stars (heros: Patrick Swayze, Bruce Willis, Saturn) were dead and didn't know it. Saturn wasn't born a brand with special needs. Saturn was stillborn. Conceived in 1985 to be "A different kind of car. A different kind of car company" Saturn never had a reason-for-being. (Go to CNN article) Former GM CEO Roger Smith (of Michael Moore movie "Roger & Me" fame) wanted to start over with Saturn. Instead he stuck the automaker with another dud. Disagree? Well let's split hairs and remember that no car buyer ever said they wanted "A different kind of car. A different kind of car company." They only said they didn't like "the US auto dealership experience." So GM, in typical fashion jumped to conclusions before they jumped to the facts. When consumers said they didn't like the dealership experience they didn't say they wanted a whole new car company. They said, "fix the dealerships." But that was hard to do because people cling to their ideas more tenaciously than their most prized material possessions. No one wanted to mess with the channel guys who also held sway over each year's advertising - and what do car sales guys know about strategy?!) So, to not piss off their prima donna dealer network GM just decided to start a whole new car company with no strings attached. Fatal mistake. The start of the long good bye.

What's the back story? San Francisco's Stouffer Hotel (the one right below the Mark Hopkins and across from the Fairmont) used to be a class act. It was the hotel that hung Maxfield Parrish's "The Oak" by the elevators. And if you're a creative and don't know Maxfield Parrish you've got a lot to learn. Anyway, the Stouffer is now a Renaissance Hotel and Parish's famous "The Oak" is gone.

But there I was in 1985, gliding past The Oak and entering the elevator with Saturn's agency head Hal Riney. Hal had just won the Saturn account with his touchy feely emotional strategy for the brand. Oh great! Now consumers had an even slipperier slope to cling to. A strategy with nothing they could sink their teeth into. No product-based selling solutions. No special user effects. Just buy us because we're warm and cuddly. A different kind of car (never defined). A different kind of car company (ill defined). Hal had pulled a page from research fueling Washington Mutual's here today and gone tomorrow customer base. "We're the nice guys that wear flannel shirts and blue jeans." We're not those take your money and run American auto dealers. Remember: early Saturn floor sales personnel always wore khaki pants and unbuttoned blue oxford shirts. They never approached you unless you approached them first. Very good on paper. Very trustworthy. Very...

And I was trying to convince Riney and GM that this wasn't going to work. Remember: Saturn, as a division, has never turned a profit for GM. It has always operated in the red and has never been able to pay it's own way. So no wonder other car manufacturers wouldn't want to jump to the brand's rescue and no wonder Penske backed out of the deal. The house never had good bones to begin with. But how did I know this? The same way I knew that Philip Morris would reduce it's dependency on tobacco profit 56% by acquiring Kraft. The same way I knew Saturn would never make it. The same way Buick agency McCann-Erickson used to position and advertise the Buick Regal as "The fine line between sport and sedan." When was the last time you ever overheard the man on the street rub his chin and say aloud, "I want the car that's the fine line between sport and sedan." No one ever asked for it. People don't TALK like that! Advertising minds gone mad. As Hal Riney's pointless work for Saturn. Advertising? Yes. It aired. Success? No. The patient died. No today. At birth.

So how should the campaign have run? What reason for being should have been communicated? Something that provided a product-based reason for being. Something that differentiated the product based on it's attributes rather than the ill-directed hopes of a management whose cognitive bias created errors in judgement that led them astray.

“Today’s disappointing news comes at a time when we’d hoped for a successful launch of the Saturn brand into a new chapter,” G.M.’s chief executive, Fritz Henderson, said in a statement. What a pitty. Had Mr. Henderson stopped to consider the fact that his Division's reason-for-being had never been properly Socially Engineered? No! The company and it's strategic partners (dealers and ad agency) simply shot from the hip and ran with it never realizing that they'd first need to have their intended customers first sit down and match themselves to the brand based on over 500 dimensions of product compatibility that GM and Hal Riney did not possess. That process would have worked much like eHarmony for Saturn and would have done more to ensure the brands success. But GM and Hal Riney were much smarter than that. Instead of doing their homework they tried to wing it. Well, in all fairness, they did do their homework, with me. They just choose not to listen. Cognitive bias. They wanted to hear themselves speak. They didn't want to tell consumers what consumers said they wanted to hear about a new car brand.

They said they wanted products that "didn't look 10 years old before they were new." Good for Saturn but a definite slam to other GM divisions. So how would history be different today had GM played THAT hand and consequently forced the other divisions to shape up? Consumers wanted "To own a car that says smart things about me." Which is the reason why all those Honda Accord and Toyota Camry buyers say they buy Accords and Camrys. A far better tagline than a different kind of car, a different kind of company because it answers/answered the question, "What's in it for me?" That's important when you consider that Honda and Camry sell about a million vehicles a year while it would be a surprise if Saturn on whole ever sold more that 65,000 units a year. By the way, the two product-based advertising/positioning solutions we developed scored off the hook for top two box intent to purchase while Hal Riney's work never tested top two box intent to purchase above just below 12.3 percent probably/definitely would buy.

So there I was in the Stouffer Hotel elevator arguing logic with Hal Riney and GM executives who like Burger King wanted it their way. And look what they got. In closing I'd like to recall some emails I traded with Cultureby author Grant McCracken who reminded me that it's a shame that corporate memories of their histories and what they've learned or not learned are so short. Here's one more vote that GM add the position of Chief Culture Officer (Grant's group on Ning) before it's entirely too late. Because if they don't the words that I'd hear from the real change agents that hired me before they folded their hands at GM will ring true. "No one's going to save GM single handed."

In the end Saturns were too much the same and not enough "smart cars." And when GM found a savior in Marketing Director Mark Hans Richter what did they do? They let him go. Proof again that working to drive scads of traffic to your sites won't necessarily bode sell for your corporate career.  My predicted future again for GM? That GM sell it's brands to Toyota or Honda if they want them. Let Toyota or Honda build and sell the names. Then GM can just end the long good bye.

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