Identity: Part 4 – A Mild Rant

I’ve been poring over the rest of this book – The Saab Brand – trying to figure out what passages to bring next.

The remaining chapters talk about Saab Expression and the idealised customer experience. Desired customer responses. Discussion of ‘our’ Scandinavian hertitage, uncluttered layouts, focus, typography and relationship building. It’s a book about the brand, not about the cars, which I guess is an important distinction to make.

One sentence that I found intriguing was as follows. It sums up in a nushell the current dilemma that Saab find themselves in:

Saab has identified a number of proven approaches that will guide us in our marketing.

Does that strike you as wierd?

Saab being talked about in the third person in a book written by the company itself about it’s brand and identity. Is it a book by Saab, or by “us”?

This goes to the core of the issue for a lot of the Saab faithful. We know that the company isn’t the same as it used to be. We even accept the fact that it can’t be as it used to be. If it was, we’d be talking about Alfas, Porsches or (dare I say it) BMWs and Audis as Saab would be bankrupt.

I think there’s two issues at play here:

1) Saab can’t be as individual as it used to be as that level of individuality doesn’t sell enough cars to survive. They need to find the balance between distinct styling and greater market appeal, which leads me to….

2) Many of us old timers aren’t the ones that Saab are aiming for. Sad as it is to say, but whilst there’s a lot of saab owners out there, there’s far fewer Saab buyers. A lot of Saab people come to their appreciation for the brand by picking one up second hand, well-depreciated. They come to understand the traits of the car and love it but that doesn’t mean they can afford to go out and pick up a new one.

The people that Saab are aiming for might have an Acura or an Infiniti in the driveway. They might even have a BMW, an Audi or a Lexus. Saab have to be individual enough to be distinct but generic enough to appeal to these customers. In economics this is referred to as an entity being either a price-maker or a price taker. BMW is a price maker. Saab is a price taker. The distinction is that one has enough desirability to set the market rather than just respond to it.

Saab’s biggest market is still the United States, where its parent company is based, and obviously the book I’ve been sharing with you was prepared for that market. What’s become painfully obvious over the last few years is that the future of Saab design and identity may be crafted with that market as a priority.

Can the two be balanced? Can the brand’s integrity be maintained? Can a car be designed and built for the rest of the world and be accepted in America?

The 9-3 and 9-5 that we have now are arguably Saab’s best quality vehicles ever, but they aren’t the most distinct. They’re selling in greater numbers but they’re not as appreciated.

And this is the riddle that GM, the corporate parent, should be striving to resolve. It’s my belief that Saab’s numbers grew in earlier years because of a passion that developed for the brand. Saab’s recent growth has been fantastic and essential for the brand’s survival, but does it have enough of that identity at it’s core to drive a new wave of passion and enable it to stick?

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21 Comments

  1. Why comparing to BMW, Audi? Saab is not a footballer celebrity BMW is and never will be. Given what was said about identity of SAAB shouldn’t it be compared to Subaru? 9-2x was based on Subaru not by accident.
    Remember Clackson piece about car’s cockishnes? BMW is as cockish as you can get (not going into supercars). Saab and Subaru are the least cockish cars here (not counting STi boys though). To put ir very simply, to me Subaru is Saab without style. So how does Subaru sells it’s cars while being a bit understated and balancing between generic and ‘for the lover’.

  2. Mendoza, Saabill:
    I completely agree. I’d much rather see Saab sharing platforms (but not engines) with Subaru–much closer to what I think a Saab should be. It was a good idea poorly executed.

  3. Two points from my usual position in the cheap seats:

    The 92x is a cracking car that will rightly be a collectors item. Far from the wallowing bucket of fat that the 97x is.

    I recently read through an extensive coverage of the new GM vehicle here in Oz – the Holden Commodore. Covers all aspects of the cars development and lineage from right back in the seventies. A key theme? Until the last three years or so, no one in Detroit even really knew who Holden was. After all, who cares about 100,000 units a year on the otherside of the world when you are moving a million F150 trucks? Sound familiar?

    Despite the overtures to Scandanavian Coool, the ice shipped to Geneva, the platform sharing, blah, blah,…….Saab just is not on the radar at GM Detroit. Its not being ignored, it just does not exist.

  4. Lots of people make fun of the 9-2x, calling it everything but “Saab”. May I have to remind you of Saab-Lancia A112 or Saab-Lancia 600? True Saab’s back when Saab wasn’t even owned by GM. There you can talk about sad things, but it’s all forgotten today. And compared to those old cars, the 9-2x and the 9-7x may actually benefit Saab in the end. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. The A112 is so cute… ๐Ÿ˜‰ When I was about to buy my first car in 1988, I looked at a Saab-Lancia 600 (and a Audi 80). Ended up with a nice cherry red 99 GL 5 Speed… ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Funny you should write on the American affect of car designs. The UK’s CAR magazine – the best I’m convinced – worried about how Americans’ demands affected the redesign of the new MINI Cooper S (v 2) that’s due to arrive next year.

    If anything, it sounds like the changes to the MINI are changes for the better. And if it’s Americans’ demands to thank, well thank us.

    The first (new) MINI was a great car but really, really flawed. All BMW needed was to take some of the kinks out of the design.

    So why do I mention MINI? Because MINI is the kind of niche market success story that Saab could be if it was actually managed by a company that gave a #$*%.

    MINI started from scratch in 2002 and has now churned out 800K + cars and is set to make huge profits on top of the mild profits its already making. But Mr. Lutz clearly doesn’t care to treat Saab as the singular entity it is and neither does the rest of GM.

    Platform sharing sedans and crossovers and SUVs was never what Saab was about to begin with. You were right, Swade, to take on Bob Lutz in his LeftLane Blog about the 9-7X last year. Your comments were spot on.

    The 9-3X concept car that premiered in 2002 was beautiful and just the kind of one-off design – like MINI – that Saab needed to get the world’s attention and for people to want to buy it.

    GM should sell Saab. It seems any other company would do better for the Swedish brand than the General has.

  7. The Mini example would only work if they sold 1 type of car. Mini also rests on the back of a BMW Series 1 platform. A mini costs $16,000 to $25,000. Production to the US is limited to 23,000 cars for the US. I’m not sure GM or anyone else could take Saab in the direction of the Mini, simply because the mini design is cheeky, fun, sporty, and great handling. Saab is something else, more mature, better handling, more comfort.

  8. GM: both the cure and the disease.

    Without GM SAAB would probably not exist, or would someone else see a good thing an buy it?

    With GM SAAB continues (the 2007 9-3SS interior is proof) to become more generic in its styling. The original interior in the 9-3SS was sub-par to the previous hatch generation, and now it’s gone downhill further. The 9-3SS sheet metal is still great compared to most other sport sedans on the road.

    I believe the redesigns of the 9-5, the 9-3SS and the release of the 9-4x are crucial steps for SAAB’s future.

    It is sad that the US manufacturers assume Americans want bland appliances, yet those bland appliances can only be sold at huge discounts whereas the foreign competitors (Honda, Toyota, etc) sell without deep discounts.

    I really hope that this doesn’t continue to happen to SAAB.

    John – Atlanta
    ’98 900SET ->
    ’01 Viggen ->
    ’04 Aero

  9. John makes a lot of sense. Do you remember when I was ranting about how Saab needs GM more than GM needs Saab? Efficiency. Saab needs the GM parts bin to keep costs down while designing in the Saabness. This is hard — and the company will have to bring in new buyers no matter what. Even more difficult. I’m hoping that Saab can still offer the performance variants that we enthusiasts want within a platform that will be competitve and profitable. After all, the 9000 didn’t turn out so badly.

  10. …just some observations re saab’s “identity.”

    1. saab will never become a “price taker” with the likes of the 9-7x and the 9-2x;

    2. gm keeps saying it wants saab to be its premium, european luxury brand. i don’t know…but it seems to me that comparisons with subaru are “gauche” or scary;

    3. saab’s lack of a better identity is from many factors, including clinging to designs a little too long, failing to accept that an engine with “four-cylinders” doesn’t sound “sexy” when comparing cars these days, and being a victim of muted enthusiasm from gm. (ever see a gm commercial?–saab seems positioned as an “afterthought,” at best.)

  11. 9x: With the number of units that Saab sells, they should be an afterthought in the GM advertizing. Saab’s challenge is to get those numbers up in order to get the attention they deserve.

    Again, this will be hard.

  12. Last night i had a dream.
    Richard Branson bought SAAB.Now wouldn’t that be interesting.
    Come on Branny you know you want to.

  13. Saabologist, that is a frikkin’ nightmare!! *SHOCKED*

    RB (I cant even bring myself to write his name) is an egotistical ****ole!

    Back to Saab, its hard to say what the Saab ‘identity’ is these days but I do remember the Yuppies in the 1980s driving Saabs long before they started buying the BMW 3-series!

  14. Personally, I think Saab needs to just let BMW have their spot for now, and focus on Volvo and upper-scale-Volkswagen territory. I find that VW people in general tend to be accepting of Saab and not jump on the “It’s different! Kill it!” bandwagon.

    I think that GM is trying to force Saab into a market that they are not ready to compete in. They are GM’s only luxury-market shot at Europe. Hopefully though, this fact will help Saab stay more European and not American-McCar.

  15. First off, PT: GM has never sold a single F-150. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Next, people say that GM doesn’t care about Saab, but GM cares a hell of a lot about Saab, because Saab is where all of the new technology is road tested, and they get to make a few extra car sales off of it, too :p

    Saab will never be a McCar (the American equivalent of Le Car?). Saabs are probably some of the most beautiful cars I can see on a daily basis on the road right now, and being a little less unique probably won’t change that.

  16. SaabSweden has to deal with GMDetroit, GME, SaabUSA and dozens of other distrib…whos actually running the show? Have you ever worked for at least 3 aholes at the same time?

    That said, if Saab has to be an/THE upscale Opel, thats not such a bad spot as the Germans/English buy quite a few and Id/Wed certainly love to give several mods a drive. GME really needs to stepup cuz theyre the only ones that have a clue how to deal with Germanauto…the ones Opel&Saab need to conquest. GMDetroit seems brain-dead most times, with product & marketing going to all its others…howhy does Saturn&Pontiac fetch the $$$ they get? Saab sometimes fits well in a hand with the other GMs. BTW you jackass GM dealers with OLDsmobile signs still up need…a briefing.

    With the value of the $ pushing 1.4EUs manufacture/exporting/shipping “global” powertrains/components, youd think thatd be right near the top of the TODO list.

    Branson is an imaginative guy…towing planes is a great no-brainer…hows that going BTW?

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