December 24, 2009

A Saab Passing

So Saab is on the way out. And I am a little less for it.

To paraphrase John Donne (and with apologies to the poetry purists amongst you):

Each brand's death diminishes me, for I am involved in brandkind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

News of the imminent demise of what Brandchannel describes as "the first venerable, standalone global brand" to fall casualty to the worldwide crisis in car-production, has provoked a reaction more suited to the announcement of a death in the extended family.

But it's only a brand, you might say. And not a very successful one at that, if sales are anything to go by. And if you're the brand-owner (General Motors, in this instance), then it's only natural that you're inclined to switch off the life-support when your ailing brand is flatlining.

Now, I'm a Saab-owner as well as a brandmaker, and whilst I can see the business-case for shutting down a brand that's not performing (and remember, the purpose of a brand is to influence choice), I am doubly diminished at the passing of this great brand.

Perhaps it's because I've grown rather fond of my own Saab? 

And it seems I'm not alone. I've written previously in Open-Heart Branding that I'm not especially into cars, but my choice of Saab made sense when I went to buy my first new car some years ago. That post prompted a remarkable reaction, not just from my regular readers, but from Saab-lovers worldwide. A number of them contacted me directly to tell me of their own love-affair with the brand.

Judging from the language used by industry analysts, it appears that the brand is widely-mourned by those who appreciated Saab's "quirky designs and mastery of turbocharging". (Even if, like me, you're not quite sure what turbocharging is, you've got to love a brand that's mastered it.) Brandchannel refers to it as a "storied brand" and reports how General Motors (who bought the brand in 1989) "slowly strangled a proud heritage with a paucity of new products."

Elsewhere, CNN talks of the death and loss of a "brand we loved", whilst others talk of the 'devastating' news of the demise of a brand with real character. Almost everyone lays the blame for the death of the brand squarely at General Motors' door, accusing the manufacturer of stripping Saab of its singular, angular design and reducing it to just another lookalike car.

No, it's not just that I'm a Saab-owner and a brandmaker. The death of any great brand diminishes us all.

When brands are at their best, they contribute hugely to the richness of our lives. Representing the distinctive relationship between buyer and seller, they make customer choice easier and a lot more interesting. Like many other global manufacturers, General Motors doesn't understand that.

Saab isn't being killed off because it didn't matter. Starved and neglected, it suffered because General Motors ignored the brand's rich heritage and made a series of poorly-judged changes that rendered the brand almost unrecognisable and left it a pale, bland shadow of its former self.

Bewleys suffered the same fate here in Ireland, whilst Guinness was victim to some appalling advertising in the late '90s that threatened to kill off the brand before it finally regained much of its old strength thanks to a return to brand values.

Like Saab, these brands matter.

To paraphrase John Donne again:

No brand is an island, entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea (or put to death by a hapless manufacturer that deeply misunderstands brands), then we are all the less.

Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for us all.

Farewell old friend, we'll miss you.

Over To You: Are you saddened by the passing of this great brand or do you think mourning a car-marque is just a little over the top?

1 comment:

Tim & Jane said...

Hi Gerard,

Interesting article and thanks for that.

I currently have a new(ish) Saab and it is nothing like the older models which were really unique in terms of their style and handling.

Once GM got their hands on Saab, the 900 (for example) was subsequently built on a vectra chassis and renamed the '93' and that was the end of Saab there and then. I had a fifteen year old 900 which went up in smoke on Donnybrook main street last year - cremation was probably a fitting end.

Just one thing that jarred with me was your comment that "Bewley's had the same fate" as Saab.

While there is currently only one Bewley's cafe as such, Bewley's Graftin Street has 1 million regular customers a year. The wider business (including a rejuvenated brand / visual identity and new product livery) is thriving both at home and abroad. Their coffee and tea products have won several gold medal awards at the Great Taste Awards in London. They have also pioneered on issues like fairtrade and carbon reduction. So to my mind at least, Bewley's is very much alive and kicking.

Thanks / all the best, Tim

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