I received this from Jon C via email last week, as the SU Hi-Po Challenge was drawing to a close. Jon doesn’t propose a Hi-Po model framework here. He doesn’t give his version of what a halo Saab might look like.
What he does do, however, is take a brief look at what Audi did to develop their model line over time and what Saab might be able to take from this.
It’s a good thinking piece and I thank Jon for sending it in.
I have been thinking a lot this past week, whilst the HiPo challenge was concluding. It prompted me to do something I promised Swade I would do about 3 years ago. That was to share some insights I gathered while working for a dealer group comprising;
Volkswagen, Seat, Saab, Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, Volvo, BMW/Mini, Seat and – rather oddly – Suzuki (which was managed by the BMW franchise).
I pretty much saw each of the dealerships front to back and met some great and not-so-great people. I made one friendship that remains to this day. Some of it was fun and some of it a total nightmare. Trying to trace a water leak on an RS6 will stay with me ‘til the day I die. The fact that when we traced the leak we found it was leaking at the other end as well pretty much finished me off.
Lets go back to 1992. I was at Uni, my fellow countrymen were killing each other with depressing regularity and Sweden won the world ice hockey championships. Audi fields a range of 5 cars, BMW 4 and Mercedes 5 (I am discounting estates etc. as distinct models). The local Saab showroom contained a total of 2 display cars and had one service ramp. It was a different time, maybe even a different world.
In the world of today Audi, BMW and Mercedes are the industry leaders while Saab is on the painful road to health. What I want to address is why these companies succeeded (specifically Audi). I don’t intend to look at where Saab failed, that’s a painful can of worms that has been opened many times before.
Firstly, Audi know where they have been, where they are going and where they want to be. Audi looked at what creates prestige and the two biggest factors were driver appeal and product. Motorsport and heritage were well down the list. Audi also knew from prior research that “perceived” quality was far more important than actual quality when selling a car and generating an image. Their research found that if, for example the car had a well constructed glove box, the customer subconsciously figures out that the gearbox will be equally well built and therefore more reliable. It’s the same factor that makes SUV drivers think that their car is safer. Not logical but people aren’t always logical.
Thus you will remember in the mid 90s things like damped grab handles and clever boot/trunk hinges appearing on German cars. The public perceived that Audis were better built than their competitors. You may argue, but I respectfully suggest the sales figures support Audis research.
Secondly, they made desirable cars. Hard to remember now but think of the impact that the TT made when it was launched. It was similar to the “ipod” effect. As people who were perceived to be trendsetters bought the car, potential customers who previously dismissed Audis as “old men’s cars” now felt comfortable with the idea of owning a TT and any other type of Audi. People who would not enter a Saab, BMW or Mercedes showroom. Combined with the A3 this means that those first customers are now moving into A4s, A6s and A8s. Audi will have customers who have never driven anything else and have no inclination to do so.
Thirdly, they marketed and publicised shrewdly. Princess Diana drove an Audi convertible. Sales in London rocketed. They made sure A8s were on side for chauffer duties at awards and major sporting events (if its good enough for movie stars…)
They run careful, well-respected advertising campaigns cementing brand awareness (where the product and message take centre stage, the slogan is incidental).
Lastly, customer service. Cars can go wrong, things can go wrong but the manufacturer must step up and support the dealer in fixing problems. That builds trust.
The interesting thing is that the cars are regularly criticised by the press (at least in the UK) and always come second to BMW at best. The public don’t seem to care.
So my message to Saab? (A big presumption on my part, that my opinion matters).
Keep doing what you are doing. Desirable product will always find success. High power models and advertising slogans are “quick fixes” that never last (if you even fool them in the first place). I do not suggest that Saab copy Audi – they must find their own way – but mistakes from the past must not be repeated. For example AMG, S Line, M Sport, all clearly defined sub brands while Saab has Aero, Viggen, Carlsson, TurboX. The sheep (sadly the people we need to pay the bills) need a clear strategy from the brand from top to bottom (and I think we are on the right road).
I make no comment on whether Saab needs more horsepower or lighter cars but I will tell you that in a world where BMW is dropping rwd on the 1 series (because the customers don’t care), the big 3 are dropping V8s and Porsche is developing hybrids we (and Saab) must not be dogmatic. We must hold onto what is important – the essence of Saab – but we must also move with the times.