Buick is hip? Well, it has a pulse

Automotive News reports on Buick's model plans.

Josh Miller/CNET
Auto Tech
2010 Buick LaCrosse
Buick restyled its largest sedan, the LaCrosse, for the 2010 model year. Josh Miller/CNET

DETROIT--After hitting a 75-year sales low last year, Buick now has new products and a hands-on marketing approach that are gaining traction.

U.S. sales are up 60 percent this year. Although that's in comparison to a miserable 2009, other numbers also show reason for hope.

The average age of a Buick buyer has dropped as the age of industrywide U.S. buyers has risen.

More significantly, as parent General Motors seeks profits, the mean purchase price for a Buick has jumped to $35,884--a 26 percent increase since 2006, according to J.D. Power and Associates. Fleet sales for the first seven months of this year have declined to 18 percent of overall sales from 31 percent in 2006, according to Buick.

Buick survived GM's 2009 brand purge mainly because of its popularity in China. Now the brand is banking on a new five-vehicle lineup and grass-roots marketing to reach younger U.S. buyers.

Roger McCormack, Buick's product marketing director, says younger consumers don't see Buick as an older person's brand.

"An older customer has the old image of Buick in their mind," McCormack says. "The younger consumer really doesn't have a specific image of Buick. It is a little fuzzy."

Some observers say the fuzziness remains an obstacle. McCormack says Buick is working on the problem, in part by trying new marketing tactics.

The venues to woo buyers are as diverse as Buick's new model line.

A trendy Chicago art gallery is transformed one July evening into a free concert hall, renamed Buick Remix. Nearly 600 people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s sip wine, sit in the four Buicks on the floor and enjoy the melodies of the alternative band Augustana performing live.

Hundreds of miles away, another Buick venue is less imposing--a local coffee shop with several Buicks parked outside. Passers-by are asked to check out the new models, then given a $5 coffee card.

A third target is a large doctor's office: The staff is encouraged to step outside to see Buick's new models in return for a free lunch.

"We are doing a lot of grass-roots," says Dayna Hart, a Buick spokeswoman. "We are taking the car to the people."

There are also social media, such as Facebook, and a Web site, momentoftruth.com, that GM launched in June. It invites comments--good, bad, or indifferent--about the 2011 Buick Regal sedan

But the brand's sales are likely to remain well below past levels. For example, in 2000 Buick sold 404,612 vehicles in the United States. Its best-selling car that year, the LeSabre, racked up 148,633 units--more than total U.S. sales are likely to be this year for the brand.

Once its five-vehicle lineup is on the market, Buick aims to sell 200,000 here annually, Hart wrote in an e-mail. Buick hasn't topped 200,000 since 2006.

A Buick sales revival would be good news for dealers, who lost the Pontiac brand from the former Pontiac-Buick-GMC retail channel. Buick remains paired with GMC.

Five vehicles--or more?
By 2013, Buick's lineup will include the current LaCrosse and Regal sedans, as well as the Enclave crossover. A compact sedan arrives next year, followed by a compact crossover in 2012. The Lucerne large sedan dies next year.

McCormack says GM is considering additional nameplates.

Industry sources suggest that Buick might offer a Regal hatchback and a coupe inspired by the Riviera concept coupe shown in Shanghai in 2007. Some dealers want the large, rear-drive Buick Park Avenue sedan that is assembled in Australia and sold in China.

Dealers say the new lineup is attracting a new buyer. "We are getting a real shot at younger, import, traditional buyers," says Mike Bowsher, president of Carl Black Automotive Group in Kennesaw, Ga. "We traded in two Land Rovers in Kennesaw. We are not used to seeing that kind of product."

The new sedan and crossover will give Buick two lower-priced entries, improving the brand's appeal to younger buyers. Today, the Regal CXL is the lowest-priced Buick, starting at $26,995, including shipping. A $20,000 sticker price is expected for the compact sedan, a Buick dealer says.

McCormack says the Regal and upcoming models will appeal to younger buyers with their exterior styling, refined interior, USB and Bluetooth technology, and sporty handling.

Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at IHS Automotive, says Buick has an opportunity to attract what was once seen as an impossible target: longtime Toyota owners. With the sudden-acceleration issue in the news, there are unhappy Toyota owners.

"The other group of people up for grabs is the first-time Toyota buyer, the people who only recently started to buy Toyotas," Lindland says. "This is not the Toyota ownership experience they expected."

One challenge: Although the product plan is locked in place, with the revolving door of marketing chiefs at GM--four in the past year--Buick's marketing message remains a work in progress.

While Chevrolet represents value and Cadillac luxury, McCormack says: "We have not really come on the right way to say it. But descriptively we have talked about it in terms of attainable luxury, unpretentious luxury."

Ed Kim, director of industry analysis at AutoPacific, says defining the brand is Buick's biggest challenge.

"What does the brand mean?" Kim says. "I think the success of the brand, the long-term viability of the brand, is hinged on that."

He says Buick needs frequent styling changes that make the vehicles "exciting, fresh and current."

Meanwhile, Bowsher is a happy Buick dealer.

"I'm talking to Automotive News about real positive Buick stuff. I can't believe it," he says, laughing. "It has never happened. We're always talking gloom and doom."

(Source: Automotive News)

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