GM's Orphaned Brand Buyers Have Moved On

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
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How many former Saturn buyers do you figure have come back to GM for their next car? What about consumers who last purchased a Pontiac? How about HUMMER? Since we’re not bound to a strict inverted pyramid around here, why don’t you think of an answer (in terms of percentage of customers retained) for each brand and then hit the jump to see how close you were.

OK, pencils down. According to the Detroit News:

In 2010, GM retained 36 percent of Pontiac owners who bought new vehicles, as well as 26 percent of Saturn and 39 percent from Hummer, according to California-based research firm J.D. Power & Associates.

That’s far below the 55 percent retention rate for GM’s Chevrolet brand, as well as under the industry average of 48 percent.

Considering that GM has been tackling this retention challenge for two years now, using the term “free agents” to describe buyers of its defunct brands and dealers and throwing all manner of free oil changes, maintenance packages, and deals on new cars at them, this is not a great result. The way former US sales boss Susan Docherty described the “free agent” retention effort a short year-and-a-half ago, focus groups, direct mail and email marketing, as well as “establishing credibility with a service relationship.” Speaking of which, dealers have been making their own efforts to reach out to GM’s “free agents” as well, so The General’s corporate retentino efforts can’t even take all the credit for this underwhelming result.

But why did GM’s “free agents” jump ship in such large numbers? One theory, from JD Power analyst Steve Witten, is that it comes down to product and branding, not dealers and outreach:

The truth of the matter is they didn’t have many options for people to stay in the GM family… When they decided to pull the plug on [Saturn], there wasn’t really another GM brand similar enough from an image standpoint

But c’mon… really? The differences between a Saturn Aura, a Pontiac G6 and a Chevy Malibu were that big? Methinks Mr Witten is looking at the past with rose-colored glasses. A more plausible theory comes from a dealer who used to sell Saturns, and has switched to selling Kias since the brand cull, who notes:

I would say the majority of people who had Saturns were very unhappy they got left holding the bag on this one. A lot of them took a hit on the value of their cars and that turned them off to Saturn and GM

Remember, a big hit on resale can be as much of a financial burden as a grenaded engine, or faulty transmission. And though GM is arguably making progress in erasing memories of its bad old days of product ignominy, things like the resale hit on culled brand vehicles could create a whole new generation of mistrust between GM and its once-loyal customers. But hey, at least there were only 6.8m of these “free agents” as of early 2010…

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Loguesmith Loguesmith on Jun 22, 2011

    When GM pulled the plug on Saturn, I had three of them - '03 L300 V6, '06 ION 2, '08 VUE XR AWD. Two of the three are now gone ... the L300 was traded in for a MINI and the VUE for a Mazda CX-7. This despite every effort made by both GM corporate and my local "Authorized Saturn Service Center" to get my business. Just wasn't anything from GM that appealed to us.

  • Wstarvingteacher Wstarvingteacher on Jun 25, 2011

    Vanilladude is mostly right on target. Bought our first Saturn SL in 1996 after seeing it at the Houston car show. Most of the maintenance stuff looked like it was designed by a mechanic. Got 45 or more mpg on highway trips. Took lots of cargo through the rear hatch. Plastic body meant scratches hardly existed. Rear ended by a full size truck resulted in just the bumper getting replaced. A dealer that didn't nickel and dime you to death. Our family owned several. Then came 2002 and we fell in love with the new Opel Vue with the Saturn name tag. Nobody told us that Saturn was really dead. We found out the hard way. Clutch slave cylinders that cost $650 to have installed. A transmission that died (that never happens we were told). Air conditioning compressor that cratered before long. So many computer replacements that I don't remember. The last one was a body computer under the dash. I decided my wife could not drive it any more and we looked for another. Just to prove that she bore no grudges, my wife decided on another Saturn Vue. This one a 2007 with a honda engine. They really were like two different brands. I took the 2002. The timing chain broke without notice and this would have been $900 to see if it were broken. Well the 2007 went for a Nissan cube and I still laugh every time I drive it. The 2002 was junked out and I bought a secondhand S10 in spite of it being GM. For those of you that think Vanilladude might be a little girl because he drove a Saturn I would be happy to explain the difference between transportation and genetalia (probably a waste of time). He is also right that the service provided by Saturn was as compelling as the vehicles until the Opel stench became overwhelming. The identity of the brand is less compelling than the tendency to engineer for repair complexity and increased cost. The SL was my modern day VW beetle and I was not happy to see it go. I did not realize that it was the last real Saturn made.

  • SilverCoupe I should be the potential audience for this (current A5 owner, considering an S5 in the future), but I can't say it excites me. I have never liked the vertical bars in the grilles of sporting Mercedes models, for one thing. The interior doesn't speak to me either.I would be more likely to consider a BMW 4 Series, though not the current version with the double Edsel grille. Still, I suppose it would be worth a look when the time comes to replace my current vehicle.
  • Verbal Can we expect this model to help M-B improve on finishing 29th out of 30 brands in CR's recent reliability survey?
  • Lou_BC I kept wanted to say "Book 'Em Danno" while looking at the photos of the Mercury but this car predate Hawaii Five - O by 3 years.
  • 28-Cars-Later Someone finally remembered what a coupe is over at MBZ.
  • 28-Cars-Later Pay more, get less!