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GM's Saturn Aura Wins Admirers, Too Few Customers: Doron Levin

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GM's Saturn Aura Wins Admirers, Too Few Customers: Doron Levin

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By Doron Levin

April 17 (Bloomberg) -- If only automaking were as straightforward as just building an attractive, high-quality car at an affordable price.

General Motors Corp.'s new Saturn Aura midsize sedan seems to fit those requirements, winning kudos from reviewers and analysts at a pace not enjoyed by other GM models. But marketing Aura and a series of new Saturn models to shoppers is proving to be tricky, with sales so far not much better than promising.

Following Aura's introduction last July, unit sales rose to almost 6,000 in December, before falling to 4,100 in January, averaging about a fifth the sales of top competitors. Also in January, Aura was named North American Car of the Year by journalists -- the same month GM fired Saturn's advertising agency, Goodby Silverstein, a unit of Omnicom Group Inc. GM switched the $190 million annual account to Deutsch, a unit of Interpublic Group of Cos.

GM declined to comment. Advertising Age, a trade publication, reported in February that Saturn executives soured on the creativity of Goodby's commercials and were eager for new ideas.

Goodby, hired in 2002, produced the eye-catching, slightly offbeat ``People First'' television commercials in 2004. In one segment, sets of twins portrayed customers and Saturn sales workers who were paired to explain the process of buying, maintaining and taking delivery of a car.

``When you put people first, you treat them the way you'd want to be treated yourself,'' the voiceover said. ``No hassle, no haggle -- it's a philosophy we've embraced from the start.''

Tried and True

Saturn wanted to persuade the public it was staying true to the principles of its founding in 1990, one of which was to treat customers more politely and respectfully than the norm at many GM and other dealerships. No haggle pricing, for example, was a big hit and a reason why sales peaked at more than 280,000 by 1994.

No one could deny that pampering new-car shoppers was a groundbreaking idea that helped put Saturn (as well as Lexus) on the map. The trouble was, Saturn cars between 1990 and 2005 weren't much to write home about -- unless you happen to favor plastic body panels and noisy, anemic engines and transmissions.

``It was a warm and friendly brand that got starved for product,'' said Rebecca Lindland, automotive analyst for Global Insight Inc. of Lexington, Massachusetts. ``Saturn was like the poor little puppy that got kicked to the curb.''

Bare Minimum

Lindland says she thinks Saturn has to sell 7,000 Auras a month for the model to be considered a success. Sales in March reached 5,500.

On paper, the Aura represents GM's most-promising entry to date in the midsize family sedan market, now dominated by the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, each of which sell about 30,000 units a month. GM's Pontiac G6, Saab 9-3, Opel Vectra and the next generation Chevrolet Malibu share mechanical characteristics with the Aura.

Explaining Saturn's failure early in its history to develop pleasing models, Jill Lajdziak, the division's general manager, said that GM at first mistakenly assumed Saturn could survive with small cars only. Then GM declined to invest in bigger, more substantial models until the division could reach profitability, which it hasn't in its 17-year history.

Worst of all, she said, jealous GM executives from the automaker's other brands lobbied against spending on new Saturn models, reasoning that it meant less for their divisions.

Family Resemblance

Starting with the Sky roadster, which debuted in March, 2006, the styling of Saturn's new models is based on GM's German-based Opel brand and are aimed at more affluent buyers. Besides the Aura, which ranges in price from $20,500 to more than $25,000, and Outlook, a large crossover-utility vehicle, the Astra compact arrives from Europe later this year, as well as a new Vue small crossover this June.

``I test drove the Aura in September and really liked it,'' Lindland said. ``It far exceeded my expectations.''

The marketing difficulty for Saturn will be to hang on to its original customer-friendly image, exemplified by the tagline ``A Different Kind of Car Company. A Different Kind of Car.'' Deutsch now must show how the cars themselves have undergone an attractive makeover, while keeping the appealing simplicity of Saturn's brand image.

If you're confused by the proliferation of Saturn marketing taglines over the years, you're not alone. In addition to the two already mentioned, Saturn also has tried ``It's Different in a Saturn'' and ``Like Always. Like Never Before.''

Though juggling multiple ideas within a single message is tricky, it's not impossible. If Saturn has settled on Deutsch, the division ought to craft a new campaign and stay true to it. So many GM executives and their advertising sidekicks have created so many obscure identities and names over the years -- from Geo Prizm to Pontiac Torrent -- that shoppers hardly know their meaning.

(Doron Levin is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Doron Levin in Southfield, Michigan at dlevin5@bloomberg.net .




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The current Saturn Aura TV ads ARE pretty lame, lacking in grabbing one's attention to the commercial... The latest one shows the Saturn dealer moving a plant and placing the "North American Car of the Year Award" there, with the competing dealer across the street standing in front of a large blow-up gorilla, supposedly in "awe."

The concept is great but the presentation stinks! If the commercial had the feel of the Ford Edge commercial, with a grabbing tune ("I WANT TO LIVE ON THE EDGE-AH"), the Aura spots would get better noticed.

The current ads are way too mundane and subdued. You don't pay attention to them.

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The problem with the Saturn Aura is that its a Saturn, a brand that still carries the reputation of being a crummy little economy car. The Aura would be enjoying more sucess if it were under another badge.

The Aura will probably sway more people once they realize that current Saturns aren't like the ones built in the 90's.

Edited by AxelTheRed

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The Aura is going to have even more problems when the Malibu debuts. I have long felt that starting up Saturn was one of GM's biggest mistakes. GM has way too many brands.

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