Saturn’s Cursed – A Brief History

The Saturn concept began in 1982 as a response to increasing import competition and a traditional, adversarial relationship between union and management – sound familiar?

The two would ultimately form a partnership to study and implement an innovative way to develop and market U.S. manufactured small cars. Together, this partnership created a distinct and clear mission, supported by a philosophy and set of shared values. Saturn’s mission, philosophy and values were all directed toward recapturing new customers and achieving world-class levels of quality and customer enthusiasm.

Incorporating in 1985 and marketing itself as a “Different Kind of Company,” the Saturn brand promoted its approach to building vehicles in a non-traditional way – going so far as to market not only the cars manufactured at their “green field” site, but the city of Spring Hill, Tenn as well. In fact “Spring Hill” because somewhat of a mecca/rallying cry to Saturn loyalists – rivaling the Jeep in defenders of the brand – an amazing feat considering the age of the brand. As a teenager growing up in the shadow of the automotive industry, nothing filled me with more pride than watching as Saturn balanced people and technology with an advanced focus on ergonomics and environmental stewardship.

Unfortunately, Saturn got off on the wrong foot but reacted quickly to maintain their fanatical support. In 1991, Saturn voluntarily replaced 1,836 cars due to improperly formulated coolant. Could you imagine a car manufacturer choosing to REPLACE verses recall a vehicle? That very story of Saturn’s commitment to providing a superior level of customer satisfaction almost sounds like urban legend in today’s auto economy.

Saturn received a tremendous push from Word of Mouth back in the day. Events were hosted in Spring Hill celebrating Saturn ownership. The movie “Gung Ho” was still fresh in the mind of Americans. And in a matter of 3 years, Saturn sold over 500,000 vehicles.

Since its mission statement in 1985, the brand has shifted focus away from small import fighter to brand engineered vehicles slotted somewhere between Chevrolet and Buick. Deviating from its core value statement: to create affordable cars with high quality and even higher customer satisfaction has cost the brand dearly. Long gone are the SL1, the SL2 and the SC coupe and in its place are the Sky, the Aura the Vue and the Outlook.

There was a time when I actually thought it was cool to walk into a Saturn dealership and avoid the stressful, cumbersome negotiating with psuedo poker playing car dealers that traditionally came with buying a car – because Saturns were sold for one bottom line price. To watch a Saturn sales associate approach you smiling with nothing but your good intentions in mind was refreshing.

I recently finished reading Made To Stick – a great book that helps teach its readers how to create a better idea. In one passage, Chip and Dan Heath give an example of how Southwest Airlines has remained profitable while sticking to its core as THE low price airline. They never sway from this, even in the face of consumer pressure to change. If it impacts their ability to deliver on their core, they hold steadfast in supporting their value statement.

Yet for all of the turmoil the Saturn brand has endured, I remain encouraged Saturn can survive. That they can take a step back as a company and collectively agree with their GM brethren what value proposition they create for consumers.

In a twist of irony, the very tenants which launched the brand are again stabbing at the collective abdomen of the Big 3. As the Detroit automotive industry attempts to reinvent itself again in order to compete in a continuously crowded market place, is now not a better time than any to launch a brand dedicated to high m.p.g., high quality and even higher customer service to its audience?

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