saturn_logoGM has announced that it is selling its Saturn division to racing icon Roger Penske. The $1.3 billion Penske Automotive Group has a number of auto-related businesses, including exclusive distribution of the Smart Car in the U.S. and a collection of dealerships representing 40 different brands.

Introduced in 1988, Saturn was once Detroit’s wunderkind. Launched with an advertising campaign by the late, great Hal Riney, it was “A different kind of company. A different kind of car.” The positioning, a  common-sense car from with a no-hassle purchase process, resonated with American car buyers, and the Saturn brand took off like a comet.

But through the years GM eroded its brand by failing to innovate with new products–or, more precisely, innovating too little, too late–and muddling its brand messaging. As a result, the “common-sense car” became the “uninspired and dull” car.

Plus, Saturn’s original “no-hassle” message was easy to copy. And even if the experience at competing dealerships didn’t always live up to the promise, the commoditization of message was enough to whittle away at the distinctiveness of Saturn’s brand.

Eventually, Saturn’s brand image could be summed up by consumers as, “The same old GM company. The same old GM car.” Ouch.

This must have broken Hal Riney’s heart in his later years. As a brander, he did so many things right. But brand messaging can only take a brand so far.The product has to deliver on its brand promise.

So it will be interesting to see what product innovations Roger Penske pursues. Will he try to put Saturn back on its original track? Or will he make Saturn stand some for something else entirely?

Much depends on how tarnished the Saturn brand has become. Only market research can determine how much brand rehabilitation is possible. Will it be enough to untether the brand from GM, innovate with some provocative new models and return to its original positioning?

Or will the new Saturn need a total makeover, including a name change and completely new positioning?

I’ll be watching from the Pollywog observatory.