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Why did we stop talking about Saturn?

Saturn was an amazing company: innovative, loved, and a plentiful source of effusive word of mouth.

Passionate fans talked about the service, the people, the company, the love.  In my book, I marvel at the fact that 60,000 people drove to Spring Hill, TN to have a BBQ at the factory.  They created one of my favorite word of mouth tactics: Saturn took a snapshot of each buyer with their new car.  It's a simple offline way to get people talking.

Now Saturn is just another GM division … and no one cares.

The Lesson: People need a reason to talk about you.  Cultivate and facilitate that passion, or people stop talking.

Pat Widder says it best in the Chicago Tribune:

When Saturn was really cool

I bought my first Saturn in 1992. That was when Saturn was ranked America's best small car of the year and sales were off the charts. Saturn owners were considered very progressive and cool, sort of like Prius owners today. Saturns turned heads on the highway; fellow drivers honked at each other in mutual admiration.

I waited six months for my car, a two-door champagne gold sports coupe. I traded it in for my second Saturn in 1996, also a gold two-door sports coupe, mainly because I regretted not getting automatic windows the first time. I've always referred to those as my $10,000 automatic windows. The new car also came with the then-new remote locking and trunk opening feature. I'm still driving that car. It runs great, gets good gas mileage and handles well in the snow — important in Chicago.General Motors started Saturn in 1985. Its mission was to build small American-made fuel-efficient cars that would attract all those Toyota and Honda buyers. The venture was a wild success. The cars were well-made, inexpensive and fuel-efficient. They came loaded with such features as anti-lock disc brakes and traction control that then were usually available only on much more expensive cars.

Saturn was a different kind of car company, a point driven home by its quirky advertising. Saturn pioneered no-haggle pricing. The company had its own dedicated plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. Saturn workers cut their own deal with the company, a labor pact so simple it could fit in a shirt pocket. It stressed cooperation and teamwork.

Saturn sold gear at the dealerships — hats, T-shirts, mugs, etc. — and was the first to offer free doughnuts. Now everyone does it, but back then it was new. The dealer took my picture when I picked up my new car. It went up on the wall with all the others. After servicing, my car always emerged sparkling clean with a rose on the dash. I never made the pilgrimage to Spring Hill like so many of my fellow Saturn owners did. I had my limits. This was, after all, a car — not family. But it was a very good car that got good gas mileage. That — not the hokey roses, doughnuts and pictures — was what made Saturn buyers loyal and created the cult aura that grew up around the car.

Then GM decided it couldn't afford a different kind of car company. Over time Saturn became just another GM brand fighting for limited resources. To make money, Saturn shifted its focus away from technologically advanced small cars with good gas mileage. Now its lineup includes a sedan and a crossover. That Spring Hill plant is just another GM plant; it makes the crossover Chevrolet Traverse. That innovative labor-management pact is long gone.

Today GM is fighting for its life, and Saturn's future is uncertain. It may be sold; it may be shrunk. But the Saturn that attracted me in the 1990s ceased to exist years before today's crisis.

So when my 12-year-old car needs to be replaced, I've already come to terms with the reality that I'll probably be looking elsewhere.

Still, a part of me wants to stick with Saturn, or at least with the idea of that Saturn that led a revolution in the 1990s. There's a photo on Saturn's Web site of a concept car, a plug-in. It's very cool-looking. I'd wait for that.

Nicely said, Pat.  Let this be a lesson to every company wondering where their word of mouth went.

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