Saturn: A different kind of disappointment

So yesterday, purchase while Beg to Differ was breaking up with the Intel brand, ed we got sad news about another old flame:  Saturn is deadPenske threw in the towel on its attempt to revitalize the brand, recipe and GM is finally shutting Saturn down. We’re feeling sad about that today. We remember when Saturn was promising to be “A Different Kind of Company; A Different Kind of Car.”

As you may have guessed from our name, we like “Different”…

(above) The "ImSaturn Network" community Web site - Everything looks different... except the cars... and the ending...
(above) The home page of the innovative "ImSaturn Network" community Web site. Everything looks different... except the cars... and apparently the end of the story...

You can read the whole sad Saturn history at Wikipedia. We’re going to focus on the Saturn brand, and how the promise changed over time, then died, and what brand managers can learn from it.

“I’m sure if everything I read is true, I won’t be disappointed”

Somewhere out there, this third grade teacher from a 1992 Saturn ad (below) must be a bit down today as well. In it, she says she read about Saturn, and makes a personal connection when workers at the company read her letter. If you ever cared about Saturn like us, you have to watch this (Spoiler Alert: it’s really sad in retrospect).

Different worked… for a while.

And I’m sure she was satisfied, for a while.  For her, and for the rest of us that were rooting for the “different” approach from the auto industry, Saturn succeeded at building  1) a “Different Kind of” brand promise, 2) a “Different Kind of” corporate mentality, 3) “Different Kind of” retail experience (no haggling), and 4) a “Different Kind of” tribe of devoted followers. They really did. The vestiges of those things are still around.

For example, Saturn has been much better than most other companies at embracing and building community online. Their fan site ImSaturn u r 2 is really engaging, and their marketing team really gets Social Media. A couple months ago, Beg to Differ was shocked and delighted when @tomfolger and a couple of Saturn marketing folks popped in to a Twitter #Brandjam to correct us when Saturn positioning came up.

Unfortunately the vehicles themselves, the “Different Kind of Car” was only ever marginally different from other cars. But the service commitment became legendary, and at least the cars looked just different enough that you could spot a “Saturn” on the road. If only they had built on their differentness…

But that’s where the story turns sour.

The big problem was, the “Different Kind of Company” was always beholden to the corporate logic of GM – a very un-different automotive behemoth.  So as the Saturn competed more and more with GM core brands, and sales never quite matched expectations, GM had two options:

Option A: Think like a bean counter = differ less:

  • The approach: try to fix technical, marketing, and customer service problems by applying the same rusty old car industry logic. Gradually water down the promise and file off the edges, so only the most fanatical still hold on to the hope of Saturn rising again.

Option B: Think like and human being = differ more:

  • The approach: Keep renewing the vision by continuing to make the cars even MORE different in ways that customers will appreciate, and keep innovating on the corporate, manufacturing, and customer service fronts (preferably by not having  it be a GM company any more).

Their choice was clear: differ less

Over the 90’s, the cars looked and behaved less and less different from other cars on the road, and by 2000, the line had expanded to include the same-old range from sub-compact to SUV – diluting the core idea of what a “Saturn” was. The passion and excitement of Saturn customers waned – as did their repeat-purchase loyalty.

So by the late ’00’s, when the really big financial meltdown happened, Saturn was dragged down by the gravity of the GM’s collapse. At Beg to Differ, we can’t help but think that stronger differentiation, coupled with the fierce (and geeky) loyalty of those early believers would have carried them through.

The big questions for brand managers:

  • Which option are you choosing for your brand – differing more or differing less?
  • Are you thinking like a bean counter (internal logic) or a human being (brand logic).
  • Are your corporate pre-occupations hampering your ability to deliver on the human promise of your brands?
  • If you disappeared tomorrow, would any third grade teachers miss you?

More nostalgia from YouTube.

Japanese language ad: ordinary American country folk buildin’ cars:

Saturn homecoming – playing on the wholesome geekiness of Saturn owners:

10 Highlights from the 2009 Best Global Brands list

Ten days ago, shop I wrote  10 days to Interbrand top 100 brands & 10 reasons to care. Well Friday (three days earlier than adverstised), the results came in. And if you have time, you can read full results and commentary at two sites: 1) Interbrand and 2) Business Week.

But I’ll warn you, it’s a lot of information, and you’ll have to wade through some sections knee-deep in self-congratulatory hype. So as a public service, I’ve distilled 10 aspects of the list that jump out for me (below).

Symbol of an industry? This year, ING crashed right off the list, along with a few other financial industry stalwartsn The past year for the financial industry in one concise picture.
This year, ING crashed right off the list, along with a few other financial industry stalwarts.
(Image from the Dutch-language blog

(But first, a slightly bitchy side note to Interbrand: guys, if you’re going to release these three days early, please 1) skip the giant countdown clock , and 2) actually send notices to people that signed up. Okay, my chest is clear, on to…)

10 Highlights of the 2009 Best Global Brands

1) Coke is still it: Top five brands are unchanged

2009 top 10 list

The top five brands on the list are exactly the same brands in the same order as last year, and although Microsoft and GE lost more value than most brands ever have, with the spread in value between the top four, those mega-brands don’t look likely to change anytime soon.

Nokia’s brand is losing steam however, while gaining ground behind it is Google (in a big way) and McDonald’s (growing, but more modestly).

2) Google is the big disruptor

The Google brand shouldered ahead of Toyota, Intel, and Disney, and now is very close to overtaking McDonalds. As a matter of fact, its brand value has almost doubled since 2007, when it was 20th in the rankings.

Think about that for a moment: “Google” has grown from geek-niche-buzzword to #7 brand in the world in just 10 years – growth rates we haven’t seen since, well, Microsoft pulled the same trick for the ten-odd years before that.

But now that Google is starting to look more and more like a big, aggressive company (because they are), can their brand sustain its quirky garage-band appeal? Already their “don’t be evil” internal mantra is attracting more cynicism than praise. And while Googlers are still innovating, and making a lot of feel-good noise with their open source projects, one wonders when critical mass and inertia kick in (see Microsoft?).

3) Other big winners this year

By dollar value gained, H&M, Ikea, and Amazon gained a solid amount of value this year.

But apart from the indominatable Google, Apple grew the most, adding an incredible $1.7 Billion in brand value. Apple is the darling of the branding industry of course and a favourite of mine (see my Steve Jobs tribute), with its creative energy and  focus on human-friendly products and messaging, so it’s heartening to see that doing it right by your customers still pays off during a recession.

4) Surprise! Financial institutions are the biggest losers

Have you heard about this recession thing? Well, if you have, then it should come as no surprise that the industry hardest hit in the brand value bottom line was the same industry that imploded and begged for (and received) massive government  bailouts.

American Express, Morgan Stanley, and HSBC all lost billions of dollars of brand value, while Citi and embattled Swiss giant UBS both lost half of their brand value in one year.  Several others dropped right off the list, including Merryl Lynch, AIG, and ING. Could it be a coincidence that many of these losers also have meaningless nomonyms for names (see my definition here)? Probably just a coincidence, but their names certainly didn’t help them.

5) Automobile brands: losing value

Also not surprising, every automotive or motorized equipment manufacturer on the list except Ferrari lost a significant amount of brand value this year.  Harley Davidson and Lexus lost the largest percentages.

But despite losses, a few brands managed to hold their own or gain ground. Apart from Ferrari, Audi managed to gain, while Ford kept its ranking – the only one of the “Big Three” American manufacturers to have a substantial corporate brand seems to have benefited from its perceived stability as well. Another star: Hyundai:

Hyundai boosted ad spending and aggressively promoted its Assurance program, which allows buyers who lose their jobs to return cars. Hyundai’s brand value slipped 5%, but it moved up three places to No. 69.  – Business Week.

6) Food and clothing: the basics still sell when times are bad

You can download the whole Interbrand report here.
You can download the whole Interbrand report here.
Comfort food standards Campbells soup and Burger King appeared for the first time, while all the other Big Food brands gained in the rankings – Nestlé, Heinz, Pepsi, Kellogg’s, and Danone. Restaurants KFC and Pizza Hut creeped ahead a few positions, while Starbucks lost 16% of its brand value and fell five spots.

The same pattern held true for clothing brands – although it must be said that the list is incredibly top-heavy with luxury brands – so Gucci, not GAP; Rolex over Timex. I suspect that this is because of a) the weighting given to “brand premium”, that is, the amount consumers are willing to spend over and above competitors, and b) the fact that lower-priced clothing brands for us mere mortals tend to be less global.

7) Adobe: New kids on the branding block

Abode finally made the list after it “recorded record revenue and double-digit growth for the sixth consecutive year. They weren’t immune to the downturn (they lost money overall), but importantly from a brand perspective, they grew strongly in the consumer preference category. And their brand awareness continues to grow through the ubiquity of their consumer-facing products Flash, and the Acrobat / PDF line.

8 ) Brand USA – still the biggest brand builder

We were watching to see if the recession would dent the US dominance in global brands. With 52 brands on the 2o08 global 100, the Yanks are the uncontested branding champs, but those of us who were hoping for a moment of guilty schadenfreude were mostly disappointed that the US claims 51 – still a majority – of the 100.

Note to the rest of the planet: keep working.

9) No new countries

The names of countries in the Global branding club stayed exactly the same this year with only 9 brands coming from outside Europe and North America (Japan 7, Korea 2). Russia, China, India, Brazil, and the rest of the world have yet to break in. But of course, it’s only a matter of time.

10) Brand Canada: maintaining numbers, but losing ground

Both of our two Canadian contender brands Thomson Reuters and Blackberry grew this year, and both made gains in the rankings with Blackberry jumping 10 spots to number 63. But they weren’t joined by any other brands, and what’s worse, we slipped a rank in number of brands-per-capita when the UK added a brand and vaulted ahead of us. On that list, we were 10th; now we’re llth.

A modest proposal for General Motors and the new boss

So with all the kerfuffle around the GM bankruptcy (and the gajillions of dollars we’ll all be shelling out to save its butt from the fire), troche the one thing that gets forgotten as always is the brand strategy angle: 60-90 days from now, GM will be re-emerging from bankruptcy under a new coporate banner. Now, that could be a simple mechanical switch, but we at Brandvelope started thinking: what if the new boss has something to say about that?

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Brand Brief: Trident loses intensity

Trident “Less Intense” – both a sign of changing times and a spectacular positioning error.

The Trident "More Flavour / Less Intense" positioning statement - along with the "Intense" tag used by competitor Dentyne.
The Trident "More Flavour / Less Intense" positioning statement - along with the "Intense" tag used by competitor Dentyne.

All right brand geeks, viagra 60mg have a go at this one.

As a life-long gum addict, doctor (full disclosure – Excel is my brand) I’m always interested in the contortions gum-makers go to to get my attention in a crowded brandfield. But this one really jumped out as both a sign of changing times and a spectacular positioning error.

Changing Times:

It seems like the “Extreme” superlatives and the “Intense” flavour / fashion / lifestyle experiences pushed by advertisers in the mid 00’s are pulling back a bit under the weight of recession. I remeber being stumped a bit why my anti-perspirant Degree started pushing new scents like “EXTREME BLAST” a few years back — which seems to me to be the LAST thing you want eminating from your armpits…

But increasingly, the consumer branding pitch seems to be less about trying new things and getting back to fundamentals. Witness the sheepish positioning line “Less Intense”.

Positioning Errors:

1) Apologetic Subtext: Sorry everybody, we didn’t mean to offend you with our intense taste for the last few decades…

2) Confusing juxtaposition: of “Now more flavour…” and “LESS INTENSE!!!!!!!!” (puncuation added) Huh?!?! I’m a bit slow on my flavour-industry jargon, but isn’t that a bit like saying about a new painting “It’s more beautiful, BUT YOU WON’T BE OVERWHELMED BY THAT ANNNOYING BEAUTY LIKE BEFORE!!!!!!”

Okay, I’m done. Any thoughts? Join the converstation!