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Saab: when the brand beats the product.

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Did you go this year? To the Brussels motor show, the 'Auto salon' 2012? You're planning to? You too want to go and drool over some exotic GT and end up buying the reasonable low-emission family car your wife tells you too? Well, this year, this petrolhead won't. This year, this car guy will give it a raincheck. This year, I'll be moaning one of the most distinctive car brands in the automotive history.

I'm talking Saab of course. As of 19 december 2011, Saab automobile is officially bankrupt. That is truly sad if you care about brands that do things a bit differently.

Saab is one of the rare car brands that became a lovemark for people who are not even remotely interested in cars. Part of it was because of the way they looked. Because there was a time when, more than a vehicle, a Saab was a design icon. Radical, pure, eccentric and unmistakably Saab. No other car looked like it. That was the case for the very first Saab - the UR Saab - and remained so for the 99, and crystallized in one of the most iconic car designs in the history of cars: the 900 convertible.

It fits right in a class of its own that is about way more than car design: they are silhouettes of an era. Only very few cars have pulled that off. The Beetle did. Porsche still does. The Citroën DS had it.

That's why the car became popular with architects, art directors, comedians and movie directors and the likes. And if you were the kind of business executive that occasionally dared to not wear a tie, Saab was probably your ride. The ride of  the sensible eccentric.

As is often the case with truly great design, the looks were initially not meant as a design statement, they were the consequences of engineers' preocuppations with aerodynamics. And it was not only about the exterior either, it had a lot to go for under the hood as well. Saab would swear by front-wheel drive in a segment and time where people traditionally bought rear-wheel drives. When critics said you couldn't transmit real power to the front wheels, a rally driver proved them wrong. On slippery roads, only few were faster than Erik Carlssons' 93 and 96, as you can see below.

Moreover, Saab was mastered the Turbo and the 4 valves per cylinder better than most. It allowed them to keep the engine sizes pretty small, while its performance was breathtaking. In the eighties, a Saab 9000 Turbo accelerated faster from 60 to 90 or from 90 to 120 km/h then a Porsche 911 Turbo or even a Ferrari Testarossa.

So what went wrong?

During those years, Saab did well. People loved it. Sales went pretty well, but it remained a brand for a select audience. They didn't come cheap ànd they didn't convey the I-got-it-made-to-middle-management-executive message quite as good as a BMW or Audi.

Furthermore, R&D became pretty expensive if you wanted to make everything yourself. So rather than developing its own chassis for its luxury sedan, Saab bought the same platform you'd find in an Opel or an Alfa Romeo. Then they started using the engines from the General Motors Group but still tweaked it with Saab Turbos. Eventually, GM would buy half of the Saab shares. Eventually, Saabs would become Opels with swedish design finnish. Saab would become 100% GM and set out to sell more by becoming more mainstream.

Eventually, this is what killed Saab.

This is what drastically changed the product. In some respects, Saabs became better. They became more reliable, they became cheaper to maintain and a bit more predictable.

The shapes would be less eccentric, so nobody was offended by it. The result was nobody was thrilled by it either.  The Turbo lag became more civil and easier to manage. But you wouldn't want to race a Porsche with it anymore.

Saab fans of the past would still buy them. Because of what Saab used to be. Middle management would still buy dark BMWs and grey Audis.

GM lost money and put Saab on sale. Victor Muller  - a Dutchman who sold 50 supercars per year - bought it. 3 years later, he's out of money too. When he wants to sell it to a Chinese car manufacturer, GM says no. Because they fear the Chinese might just copy their technology.

Mr. Muller is still optimistic about the future of Saab. Because of GM, I am not. I will now drive a car that has a huge brand value. And I will fail to see why nobody can turn that into tangible business value.

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