Corporate Eye

Penske Rescues Saturn from GM

saturn-penskeI remember back in 1994 when I bought my first Saturn and in 1996 when I bought my second Saturn.  I didn’t buy another after that.

In the beginning, Saturn was a brand built on differentiation and word-of-mouth marketing.  It was a brand that created expectations and lived up to them.  It was a brand with a clear brand promise, “a different kind of car company,” and it lived up to that brand promise again and again.  The result was a powerful cult brand with a large band of loyal brand advocates.  It became a relationship brand that relied on brand experiences — in the showroom, in the service department, at the manufacturing plant, and even at the annual Saturn owners picnic, which drew thousands of loyal Saturn owners from around the United States each year to share their love of the Saturn brand.

In just a few years later, everything changed, and Saturn has never been the same.

When General M0tors decided to abandon the Saturn brand promise in return for higher profits, loyal customers noticed.  They left the brand finding no value in the relationship anymore.  Saturn never recovered.

But is there a chance for the Saturn brand to get back to its roots and become a powerful relationship brand again now that Penske Automotive Group has acquired Saturn from GM?

I think the answer is yes.  The Saturn brand still has value.  Consumers remember the early days of the Saturn brand when it truly did make the car buying and owning experience different.  Will Penske Automotive Group try to recapture the strength of that brand promise or try something different to regain power for the brand?  It’s hard to say, but the fact that the Penske brand is powerful unto itself and well-respected by both the auto industry and consumers should bode well for the future of Saturn. 

I’m still hopeful for Saturn.  How about you?

Image: Flickr

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Susan Gunelius is the author of 10 marketing, social media, branding, copywriting, and technology books, and she is President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She also owns Women on Business, an award-wining blog for business women. She is a featured columnist for and, and her marketing-related articles have appeared on websites such as,,, and more. She has over 20 years of experience in the marketing field having spent the first decade of her career directing marketing programs for some of the largest companies in the world, including divisions of AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include large and small companies around the world and household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more. Susan is frequently interviewed about marketing and branding by television, radio, print, and online media organizations, and she speaks about these topics at events around the world. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.

It would be nice if Penske could turn Saturn around and they reintroduce those things that made owners so happy owning the product. I used to love the no-haggle, no-nonsense experience I came to expect from both the sales and the service staff. I never left the dealership feeling cheated or like a walking wallet.

While I was never so gleeful as to attend the annual picnic, I had nothing but great things to say about the product or the staff. It also seemed like a great place to work and that showed in how the customers were treated. All those “intangibles” combined to make this little experiment a force in the auto industry and other companies in different lines of business tried to emulate their success. Good luck Penske! I’d buy another Saturn and if they could get back to the basics.

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