Branding Guru Al Reis: A Time to Kill. But Whom?
As GM gets out its begging bowl and approaches the federal bailout buffet for seconds, it’s got to tell Congress something positive about its bloated brand portfolio. The scuttlebutt: GM will declare its intention to kill Saturn—despite the enormous expense and legal hassles (i.e., more expense). Oh, and let the taxpayer pick up the tab (gee, thanks). BUT, one day in the not too distant future, the artist once known as the world’s largest automaker will file for Chapter 11. And on that fateful day, it will be free to kill brands. So I asked branding guru Al Reis about the maybe decision to deep six Saturn, what GM brands should survive the automaker’s impending C11 and what dangers lie ahead in that regard. The answers may surprise you. Or they may not. But you’re going to have to make the jump to find out.
“GM shouldn’t kill Saturn,” Reis asserts. “Saturn was the perfect entry level brand. The cars were inexpensive, new and different. Plastic panels for low maintenance? Genius. The no-haggle price policy was ideal for unsophisticated first-time buyers . . . Then they made a classic GM mistake. ‘Sales are down so let’s put more cars in the showroom.'”
Of course, GM already has an entry level brand: Chevrolet (in case you got confused with all this branding going on). Reis (of all people) acknowledges the cannibalism and confusion, but still reckons Saturn could make a go of it in a post-C11 world.
“It’s not all about product. Sometimes it’s about brands. Take a badge off a Mercedes and hardly anyone would buy it. Put a Saturn badge on something dirt cheap and reliable and you’d have a decent shot of doing the deal.”
So who else lives? Not Saab. “They haven’t ever made money on that brand. Not once.” Not HUMMER, Pontiac or Buick. (“A guy at Buick once told me ‘We’re going to make the perfect entry-level Buick.’ I said, ‘XXXX, that’s a Chevy.'”)
GMC makes the cut. “Put all Chevy’s trucks into GMC; make it a truck brand. That would clarify the brands and help both GMC and Chevy . . . GMC is a great brand with a lousy name. You could take one of the product names and call it that. Silverado, maybe.”
Cadillac’s good. “A great brand takes a long time to create and even longer to kill. Cadillac’s not dead yet. Not by a long shot.”
And there you have it. In Al Reis’ world, GM = Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Saturn. But here’s the thing: Reis says GM should NOT pare down to two brands. “As sure as I’m sitting here, the branding problem would get worse, not better. GM would dump all their products into two dealerships. Nothing would mean anything.”
At the end of our conversation, I asked Reis his opinion of former GM Car Czar Bob Lutz.
“I met Lutz several times. He’s a charming man. He was excellent from the product point-of-view. But GM doesn’t know how to build great brands. Lutz . . . didn’t add anything to that picture. It’s a shame.”
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