What every marketer can learn from Saab’s crash and burn

This week marked the dead end for Saab motor car company. And they should cause a deathly chill to run down the spine of any marketer who believes they can get by, just by getting by. Undifferentiated in a market filled with hundreds of cars to choose from, Saab sought to find its place in the world.

Even from the beginning, the imported car company struggled to find a narrative. Quirky, eccentric, yet nonetheless adroit at finding enough niche to eke out its existence, the car became the darling of an intelligentsia willing to forgive the brand its shortcomings and create a brand narrative for the car on their own. The product became, by default, a thinking person’s car. The company’s owners, from SAAB to General Motors, to the thin vapors of financing from both the Swedish government and Chinese investors, were less forgiving and brought the company to a screeching halt.

But there’s a lesson we can all remind ourselves from Saab’s sad demise. Namely, a brand that cannot sit across from a buyer (whether a consumer, or buyer at Walmart or Target) and tell them where they’re from, what they’re about (how they’re differentiated), what identifies them in the market, how they’re used, the language they use that surrounds their community, what they’re not and never want to become, and who’s steering the way—they will ultimately fail. Saab’s lifespan from 1947 to 2011 is not as long as Levi’s, Kraft, or even its auto import counterpart VW, which is still rolling.

Founded in 1947, SAAB was an acronym for Swedish Airplane AB, a company that manufactured airplanes. While every advertising agency that handled Saab created some advertisement that featured jets (one had a Saab car racing a Saab aircraft down the jetway), it was not until Lowe NYC created their “Born from jets” line that Saab’s origins started to gain traction.

While we may scoff at seeing historical footage of Mercedes, Porsche and Chevrolet on the world’s speedways, or crusty black and white film of Henry Ford inside his factory, the creation myth is the foundation of meaning. It is an inherent human desire to know where things come from. If you want to be my friend, I need to know where you’re from.

The tagline “Born from jets” differentiated Saab in a parking lot already filled with automobiles in pursuit of perfection, ultimate driving machines, and cars engineered like no other cars in the world. In a four-wheeled ecosystem with over 500 choices to choose from, any positioning born from a brand truth is a treasure to cling to. Sadly, finally achieving their unique differentiation was too little, too late for Saab. General Motors management had lost interest in their exotic imported lines, and was already making plans to shed itself of the whole lot.

What originally signified Saabs on the street was their unique, black design. Saab styling continued to stand out on the street, until General Motors co-opted Saab design by mainstreaming it into the GM design catalog. The ignition system was quirky, too. The key was on the transmission deck, not altogether practical (beware the Starbucks that slopped in there) but unique. Like the rebirth of VW, Chrysler, Cooper Mini and others, the brand might have benefitted from having some renowned state-of-the-car designers (e.g. J. Mays) on its lot.

Saab performance was and is exceptional. (Frankly, sitting in a Saab Turbo does achieve thrill status when pedal meets metal: the car is born from jets.) Although handling is not as tight as a BMW, the car has spirit. (Running footage was shot not on Mt. Tamalpais like most car manufacturers, but on the back highways of South Africa.) If this had been recognized and pushed 20 years ago, instead of quirkiness, the brand might have had a chance of surviving today.

(There’s also an unsubstantiated rumor that, in Sweden, Saab stands for safety. Not Volvo. Rumor has it, Volvo envied Saab’s positioning enough to transport the concept to the U.S., flanking its home rival.)

Although adjectives like quirky, eccentric, odd, do not mainstream make, it is the responsibility of every brand to understand not only who they are, but who they are not and never want to become. The brand could have expanded its appeal by seizing both what it is, with some insights into consumer desire. Crushing the two together is where the juice is.

It is easy to stand back and whisper what might have been in hindsight. But it is also easy to forget that marketers not only have a responsibility for day-to-day sales, but to the longer perspective of how brands become (and remain) meaningful to their consumers. Identifying and incorporating brand legacy, brand values, brand assets, brand personality and a long-term vision for the brand—and keeping those elements current, relevant, and vital are the foundation of responsible brand management.

What this really adds up to is that Saab was never a brand at all. Its marketers never seized hold of what the car was, why it existed, or what its brand assets or brand personality were. Its management created no vision, never really seized upon an overarching brand experience. And because the car held no real meaning for consumers, and no reason for being, it ceased to be.

SAAB. 1947-2011. R.I.P.