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:

Jumping the FailWhale: Twitter’s biggest problems

This morning’s Twitter outage, symptoms is only one of the many problems facing brand Twittter. Back in June, order early in my Twitter career (yes, the Twitterverse is turning quickly my friends) I blogged about this – No Twitter Brand, what are YOU doing? But now that I’ve had time to think about this some more (thanks for the outage Twitter!), I’ve got some more thoughts – all of which require more than 140 characters.

Aquatic superstar rising (falling?)... Just one of the great fanart images at
Aquatic superstar rising (falling?)... Just one of the great fanart images at

Over the next week or two, I’ll deal with 3 major brand credibility problems Twitter is facing, followed by a set of solutions I’ll modestly put forward. 

The Jumping the Failwhale series: Twitter’s biggest problems

  • Problem 1: Brand Promise: (in this post – see below) the free ride will have to end, and the real owners of the Twitter brand will not be pleased.
  • Problem 2: Brand Character: (coming soon) Twitter feels more “Social” and less like serious “Media”. Basically, the boss ain’t buying it, and unless something changes, he may be right.
  • Problem 3: Brand Personality: (coming soon)Despite the fresh, breezy cartoon-graphics, the kids aren’t twittering. Twitter is fast becoming an old people’s brand and the problem is hard-wired into the product.
  • Solutions:  (coming soon) My 10 Recommendations to save Twitter.

Problem 1: Brand Promise. The free ride will end.

A Brand Promise is the implicit set of expectations a brand builds up in the mind of its customers over time. And just like a real-world promise, the owner of the promise (and indeed the brand itself) is the person to whom the promise is made: the customer. Twitter carried by whales

The promise of Twitter 

Twitter users have come to value, and expect, a free, open online community accessible to all with 1) an Internet connection and 2) enough time to cultivate a Twitter brand of your own.

The problem with this is that of course, the party can’t go on like this forever. There are real world implications to the scale of Twitter’s success. Yup, I mean big crashes like this morning. But more to the point: money / revenue / filthy lucre / a basic business model. This is of course a no-brainer, because it’s a problem with all Social Media. Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, and a thousand other online communities and services have built their huge audiences fast on the same implicit promise.

Try it, use it forever, and pay nothing – with no ads – all of these are very attractive hooks to get people in. But having set those expectations in customers’ minds, no one should be surprised if they feel betrayed if you suddenly try to “monetize” their “eyeballs”. Oh, they’ll understand. But this isn’t about rational thought; it’s about a broken promise.

I can hear the objection: “but we never said it would be free forever”. Doesn’t matter. Your actions led them to expect it would be free forever, which in their mind is the same thing.

A summer-friendly analogy

Imagine that one day I mow my neighbour’s lawn, then laugh off any payment he might offer by saying “that’s what neighbours do”. Don’t you think it would make him happy and strengthen our neighbourly bond? Probably. As long as he didn’t suspect my motives.

Which leads me to the following week, when I tell him “I’ve decided that the price of gas being what it is, you either have to pay me a dollar to do it again, or listen to a 5 minute pitch for my business.” 

He’ll understand. He might even recognize that it’s a really good deal I’m offering. But do you think he’d be happy about it?

An example from my practice

We dealt with this issue last year while I was acting Vice President of Marketing at – an online learning management network. We played around with a number of options, from totally free access (like Facebook or Twitter), to pay-per-use, or just a low-cost subscription. Our solution in the end: give users a free-forever option, but a) be very clear what the limits were, b) set clear prices on the commercial e-learning content we sold through our library, c) give them an expanded range of capabilities for free in exchange for sharing their content with the rest of CoursePark, and d) make it easy and transparent to allow them to upgrade to the “enterprise” version for larger programs / more support / more member controls.

The bottom line

Be careful what you promise (even implicitly); your customers will hold you too it.
If you’re building a business, people are cool with that – if they know your motives in advance.
If you have built expectations that you can’t sustain, don’t assume that you can change the rules at will. You will pay for it.