Saturn Couldn’t Escape GM’s Dysfunctional Orbit

Paul Ingrassia from the Wall Street Journal: General Motors and the United Auto Workers union have waged war against each other—sometimes hot, sometimes cold—for most of the past 80 years. One of the few things on which they collaborated, sadly, was undermining Saturn, which began as the boldest effort to reform the dysfunctional dynamics of their relationship. On Wednesday, what appears to be Saturn's death knell sounded when Roger Penske, the legendary automotive entrepreneur, abandoned his plan to buy Saturn from GM and run it as an independent car company. Mr. Penske's plan was a long shot anyway. He had intended to make Saturn a distributor and retailer only, procuring the vehicles from auto makers—initially GM and then France's Renault — on a contract basis. One inherent problem was that the companies making cars for Saturn also would be its competitors, if only indirectly in Renault's case. So it was little surprise when Mr. Penske couldn't reach acceptable terms with Renault and pulled out of the deal. But make no mistake: The failure here isn't Mr. Penske's. Saturn was killed by its creators, GM and the UAW.

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Flashback Friday: How Saturn Built a Brand

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Saturn launched its lineup of compact sedans and coupes in the fall of 1990 as an relatively unknown and untested manufacturer of "a different kind of car." The Saturn team did the impossible by implementing a set of strategies that included building quality vehicles and crafting an intriguing message that attracted car buyers who had written off domestic cars long ago. That was no small feat. In his book, "Building Strong Brands," author David Aaker set out to "not only to describe what was done but also to suggest the logic behind the strategies: why they were pursued, and how they were intended to contribute to the brand." He concluded that "although certainly some elements of the Saturn strategy may have been critical, it was the synergy of the total program rather than the power of any single element - that led to its success."