Once again, comments spawn a new post. And a long one, too.
In a previous post, where I jokingly offered to have Bob Lutz’s kids, Saab copped a fair whacking from Kramer, who labelled the company as an embarassment because of the current model sharing arrangements with Suuby, Chev etc.
Our resident Russian Saabist, Pavel, chimed in with a comment regarding the loyalty shown by Saab purists and artfully complimented me on my optimism about the future (for which I am thankful).
Pavel also provided a link to a piece on brand loyalty. A piece that has a Saab focus. And it’s well worth a read.
In the article Brand Community (Journal of Consumer Research, March 2001), which Muniz wrote with University of Illinois professor Thomas C. O’Guinn, a brand community is described as “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relations among admirers of a brand.” The authors also write: “These brand communities exhibit three traditional markers of community: shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and a sense of moral responsibility.”
Shared consciousness, Muniz and O’Guinn write, happens when “members feel an important connection to the brand, but more importantly, they feel a stronger connection to one another.” For example, many Macintosh owners speak to each other through websites that co-opt Apple’s old marketing slogan “For the rest of us” as a rallying cry for the entire community.
Rituals and traditions “represent vital social processes by which the meaning of the community is reproduced and transmitted within and beyond the community. [These] typically center on shared consumption experiences with the brand,” write Muniz and O’Guinn. They offer the example of Saab owners who acknowledge each other on the road by waving, honking, or flashing their headlights.
In the area of moral responsibility, Muniz and O’Guinn find that there is “a sense of duty to the community as a whole, and to individual members of the community.” This includes recruiting new people into the community (assuming they fit the established norms for the community, addressed later in this article) as well as helping other members who may be having problems. Saab owners, for example, will pull over to help another Saab owner in distress, something Muniz experienced first-hand when he owned a Saab several years ago.
It should be noted that the article was written 3 years ago. I couldn’t imagine the following being sanctioned in 2005 and though I might be wrong, I can’t imagine that Steve Janisse plays an active role in Saab at GM under the Lutz/Wagoner/Spenchian regime.
Steve Janisse, Saab product communications manager, embraces this close relation and suggests it is only possible with a smaller consumer base. “We recognize who we are and what we are: a unique, premium alternative to big name luxury brands such as BMW,” says Janisse. “We want to remain a small player and keep our brand’s character. Any time you get too big, you lose the ability to stay in touch with your customers.”
In fact, Saab is so happy with its little niche that the company insists on modest growth trends. Janisse says that Saab currently sells around 130,000 cars globally, including sales of 40,000 in the US, and plans to increase that number to 200,000 globally, including 60,000 to 80,000 in the US, within the next three to five years.
The value of having a strong brand community can’t be overstated, though obviously a company like GM would prefer to have people buying new vehicles. It goes without saying that GM makes nothing at all when I buy my next 1993 C900 from The Trading Post. So the management of a brand community is a delicate thing. It needs to be grown in order to maintain future continuity, but it also has to be satisfied that the community’s norms aren’t shifting the boundaries to a place where community members don’t want to hang out.
And this is the trouble facing GM after the recent introductions into the Saab range. Reactions to the 9-2x and 9-7x within the Saab community have been as mixed as anywhere, with some loyalists screaming for blood and others seeing the business case for the move, which is the approach I’ve tried to take. There’s now several thousand 9-2x owners in the US and Canada that quite likely wouldn’t have been Saab owners prior to the model’s release. We’ll quite possibly be able to say the same about 9-7x owners in a year’s time.
The interesting thing will be what happens in, say 10 years from now, when both of these models have been replaced. I’m predicting that there’ll be several different ways to remember the 9-7x and the 9-2x.
Firstly, there’ll be those that remember the 9-7x as Saab’s first entry into the larger SUV market. The car was well appointed and good value for money and did what the company said it would do. It carried their family around pretty comfortably and in relative safety. The 9-7x was only around for a few years, but it opened the door to a different market and thankfully, Saab were able to capitalise on it with better models in the ensuing years.
Then there’ll be those that think that the 9-7x was an absolute travesty. A typical example of GM’s corporate-giant thinking and a bastardisation of that little ‘quirky’ Swedish brand.
They’ll think largely the same about the 9-2x, although they’ll concede that there was more symmetry between the Suuby and Saab, so it won’t be remembered with quite the bitter taste as the 9-7x.
So which category do you fall into?
Cat 1 – the understanding if somewhat underexcited viewer of change.
Cat 2 – the passionate hater of things foreign to the central brand identity.
Well – realising that this is a total generalisation and therefore apologising for any inappropriate pigeon-holing – I’m willing to bet my last pair of grubby undies that most Saab loyalists will fall into category one.
Well, for starters, we’re Saab loyalists. Our identification is with the brand and our overriding hope is for the continuation of the brand and a return to the functional Scandinavian design that has underpinned it over the years. We don’t necessarily pin our identity to one particular model of vehicle, but moreso to a philosophy that threads through the range.
Second, we’re practical. I don’t want to go into numbers here (because it’s boring and because I don’t have the specifics at hand), but there was, and still is, a very strong business case for Saab having to break new ground in terms of its customer base. We traditional Saabists should be smart enough to know that.
Third (and most importantly), providing Saab can follow up with better vehicles in the future, we know that in 10 years time that the 9-7x and 9-2x will be seen for what they are (were): Good quality bridging vehicles that enabled the development of something truly “Saaby” a few years later (and therefore, another episode in Saab history where they borrowed something decent from another manufacturer and made it their own).
So, if you’re a 9-7x or 9-2x owner, maybe even a first-time Saab owner and you’re reading this blog, written by a true-blue Saab loyalist and owner of the most significant Saab ever made, an old 1979 model 99 turbo, then I have this to say to you:
You’re invited to participate in the Saab community. I hope that should you choose to hang out in the Saab community, that you’ll enjoy it and that you’ll get to know the fascinating history behind the company and the hopes that we have for its future.
And if you’re a 9-7x hater or a 9-2x hater, maybe even just a Saab-hater, then I have this to say to you: Go find something you’re happy with. You’re wasting your time. You’re probably unhappy being here and I’ll likely be unhappy reading your comments, so please just go find a happy place to hang out.
The main point here is that everything changes. Saab had to change in order to stay alive and will continue to have to do so into the future. Back in the 60’s this sort of change meant using a 4 stroke engine instead of the traditional 2 stroke. It’s harder to imagine a bigger philosophical change in vehicle development than that, yet the sense was seen, the change was accepted and the company kept on going.
As the years go on, there will be more changes in Saab design and philosophy and there’ll be more people around to either appreciate or dislike it, but the overriding concern will still be the continuity of the Saab brand and the growth and understanding of the Saab community.