General Motors Death Watch 133: Saturnalia, American-style
As GM tosses the last pieces of furniture into the cash conflagration burning down their house, you are going to see some seriously weird shit. Saturn’s new tagline is the most recent anomaly from the End of Days department: “Rethink American.” Given that the new Saturn Astra will be built in Belgium and the new Saturn Vue will be built in Mexico, you’ve got to wonder what bright spark (no concept car intended) OK’ed an ad campaign based on post-modern irony. Oh wait; they’re serious. They want customers to equate Saturn's Opelized lineup with American patriotism. How bizarre is that?
Rivet counting readers know that Chevy’s tagline– “An American revolution”– ignored a Korean-made car in that brand’s stable. And a Canadian Impala. And a Mexican Avalanche, Silverado, Suburban and HHR. They might also be aware that every car in Saturn’s new lineup will soon be based on European Opel designs– save the Outlook and Sky, which both entered Saturn’s orbit via the time-honored GM tradition of badge engineering.
Business-oriented readers might wonder why Saturn would play the American card when the corporate mothership has staked its future on “world cars” built on shared platforms. Or how an ad agency named Deutsch (which is German for “German”) figured that a Saturn ad campaign appealing to American patriotism would work when Chevy’s “My Country” ad campaign did sweet FA for the Silverado.
If you’re not a member of either camp, how about this: Dan Keller, Saturn’s marketing director since January, explained his brand’s new approach by claiming Saturn was free to re-invent itself. Why? “We don't have all the baggage the domestic car companies have.” So the marketing director responsible for an American-themed re-branding campaign forgot that Saturn is a division of the largest car company in the U.S.? Weird.
In fact, the division GM CEO Roger Smith Saturn founded to be GM’s “import fighter” is now using imports to fight cars built by foreign-owned companies in the United States. Go figure.
Meanwhile, as I said, GM is throwing pieces of its [former] American Empire on its own funeral pyre. The General is now looking to sell its medium-duty truck unit to truck and engine maker Navistar International Corp. The news comes hot on the heels of the revelation they’re trying to unload Allison Transmissions.
While medium trucks are a relatively small business for GM (last year they sold 59k vehicles under various nameplates), Allison is a large and thriving concern. The division currently adds about $500m cash flow to The General’s coffers. And yet GM wants to unload the company for about $3b. Wants or needs? While the spinmeisters talk about “focus,” we’re keeping an eye on the cash.
As, no doubt, are the private equity vultures who’ve been circling GM for some time. And now that Cerberus has thrown open the factory gates of Hell over at Chrysler, it’s only a matter of time before someone, somewhere figures out a way to extract financial value from GM by carving it into pieces. You don’t have to be a frustrated Corvette intender or a Hummertainment Center owner to know that there are significant bits of GM with latent value– if only someone could sever the bureaucratic umbilical cord.
Truth to tell, even Saturn would be better off on its own. Rethink American? What the Hell’s wrong with American? And what the Hell was wrong with Saturn? Not so long ago, Saturn built an innovative, home-grown product (with union labor). The brand offered no haggle pricing and delivered an unparalleled dealer experience. Saturn had some of the highest customer loyalty in the history of car retailing ever. From the git-go, Saturn was a hit. And then GM killed it.
Through neglect, indifference and in-fighting, GM murdered Saturn’s product line and disbanded their design team. They even took away Saturn’s corporate offices. GM’s “different kind of car company” became the same old “nothing very special but here we are, still nice people, still selling cars, if only just.”
Yes, you’ve gotta credit GM’s Car Czar and Co. for switching Saturn’s product lineup from famine to feast. But stuffing a bunch of products (however excellent) into Saturn showrooms without having a coherent, unifying reason for them being there won’t resuscitate the brand. In a hyper-competitive market, you need more than a few good products. You need a raison d’etre.
In fact, it’s painfully clear that GM’s overpaid execs don’t have a clue about branding. Not one. They don’t understand that all brands are built on trust: a promised fulfilled. Spinning tales about your product that are patently or even subtly false breaks the brand’s promise. At that point, you’re done. At that point, it’s time to sell all your worldly goods and disappear. Which is exactly what GM is doing.
More by Robert Farago
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