Ironically the one organization withinCorp. that perhaps most effectively manages its brand --Saturn Corp.--has no one called a brand manager.
From the 1994 Homecoming, when thousands of owners drove their cars to Spring Hill, TN, where they were built, to the ads featuring the Saturn cycling team that ran during the Atlanta Olympics, the company has used its own start-up story to project an aura of friendship and trust that transcends the car's attributes.
Accountants and skeptical observers continue to debate whether Saturn is a bottom-line success. But few would dispute the clarity of its brand image.
"Our mission is providing vehicles that are expressive and fun to drive to people seeking a better ownership experience," says Joseph J. Kennedy, Saturn vice president for sales, service and marketing. "The foundation for why customers can trust us is that we are a different kind of company with people who have a special spirit."
Go ahead, snicker. But there's not a car company out there that wouldn't replicate some of the Saturn formula if it could. Transplanting it even within GM is tough.
Now Saturn must prove that it can grow into adolescence without losing its religion. This fall it begins selling the EV1 in Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson. Then around the end of the decade it will begin building the midsize SR in Wilmington, DE, the first Saturn-badged product from outside Spring Hill and its zealously flexible labor relations. But so far Saturn is keeping a low profile in its parent's evolving brand management obsession. Some Saturn marketing people have taken part in training GM's 35 brand teams, but not in the spirit of "this-is-how-we-did-it-so-follow-us."
"If the things we do well were easy for the rest of GM to copy, then it would be easy for competitors to emulate, too," Mr. Kennedy says. "The key to a competitive advantage is that it is not easily copied."
Much of what works for Saturn is the sense that it's a constructively contrarian group of people whose collegial vibrations extend beyond the car itself, or at least make it more appealing than it would be on its own.
Much of the advertising barely shows the car at all. Instead you see workers, customers or the company-sponsored cycling team.
"There are other ways to advertise than by showing speeding cars going down wet winding roads," says Mr. Kennedy. "Certainly the product sets the potential, but we're a demonstration that the product is not everything. The power of a clear brand idea is that it's understood internally as well as externally."
Skeptics say Saturn can only ride on its warm-and-fuzzy karma for so long. Sooner or later it will have to focus on the car and show that it has an engineering identity beyond its polymer body panels or the way its engine blocks are cast.
Mr. Kennedy disagrees.
"Five years from now we're going to use the same message with the same theme, delivered differently enough to make it interesting," he says.