Saturn On Road Back: Like Always, Like Never Before

Speaking to reporters at yesterday's meeting of the International Motor Press Association in New York, Jill Lajdziak, general manager of GM's Saturn brand, told of a trip she took to Washington, D.C. to meet a guy who runs a popular Web site for aficionados, called Saturnfans.com. She wound up at his kitchen table doing a live chat about Saturn.

Lajdziak did it because back in 2001, when Saturn merged with GM, owners were concerned that the brand would lose its legendary reputation for customer service.

The merger, she pointed out, was meant to produce economies of scale, and not just in terms of product development. "It was in all areas: I used to have my own separate market research team--we did our own research. Now I go right to Paul Ballew [GM executive director, market and industry analysis]. I have one of the best in the business doing research."

Lajdziak said Saturn ("Like always, like never before") has a multi-pronged marketing strategy. It wants to lure buyers of Toyota, Honda and other imports by expanding its portfolio from just two vehicles to seven by the end of next year, while reassuring its current owners that the brand isn't toying with its brand equity in customer service.

"Our goal for the company is to bring in people who would not have otherwise considered a GM product," she said, claiming that about 62% of Saturn buyers would not consider any other GM model. "We are [also] focused on making sure our 3 million owners we have today come along with us."

The company will have launched four new products by the end of the year--including the Aura mid-sized sedan, the Sky roadster, Vue Greenline hybrid SUV, and a crossover, Outlook, which replaces the short-lived Relay. She also noted that Saturn's European sibling Opel will be the basis for future vehicles, such as a Saturn version of the European Opel Corsa compact.

The importance of Saturn's current owners is reflected in the brand's loyalty numbers. According to Lajdziak, loyalty has begun an upswing after a decade-long decline. In the early '90s, 52% of Saturn customers bought a new Saturn when they were back in the market for a vehicle. In 2002, customer retention was down to 27.3%. "Now we are seeing 46% and 47% retention rates." Saturn's September sales were up 4.4% over the previous year.

Lajdziak said Saturn will be GM's "green" brand, something she insists is inherent in its identity already. In addition to the Vue Green Line hybrid, the company will offer a hybrid version of Aura next year, and another hybrid in 2008.

To promote the Vue Green Line, for instance, the company is running greenhouse events in three Washington, D.C. locations next week with Dwell magazine. The events include seedling giveaways, lectures on sustainability, cooking demonstrations, and the like. Saturn also represented G.M at New York's NexTrend confab last month, touting hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell technology.

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