DETROIT – Buick marketers say a product-led revival of the 106-year-old brand has turned the corner, evidenced by a new group of buyers flocking to showrooms as consumers reassess their needs and reconsider products from the domestic auto makers.
“We hear it from our dealers all the time that people are interested in American cars again,” newly appointed Buick General Manager Brian Sweeney tells Ward’s during an interview at last week’s North American International Auto Show here.
“They are interested with what we’ve got now with (the) Enclave and LaCrosse,” he says of Buick’s nearly 3-year-old large cross/utility vehicle and redesigned-for-’10 premium sedan. “They’re reading about what we’re thinking of doing. And we’re winning them over – definitely winning them over.”
That’s something Buick has not done in many years. Ward’s data shows Buick sales hit 102,306 units last year and 137,197 in 2008. That still is just a fraction of the 404,612 cars and trucks the brand sold to start the decade.
But other metrics also show improvement. Since the Enclave’s launch, the Buick brand has shaved five years off the average age of its buyers – to 65 years from 70, according to General Motor Co.’s data.
The average Enclave buyer is 55 years and half of them are women. More than one-third of ’10 LaCrosse buyers are 55 years or younger, while less than 10% of those who purchased the older model were younger than 55.
Buyers of the new LaCrosse also boast a higher household income; 30% are new to GM; and two-thirds are turning in an import model, the auto maker says. The first buyer of the new LaCrosse was a 33-year-old male from Milwaukee who traded in an Acura.
“That’s just one example, we have thousands of others like that,” Sweeney says of the Milwaukee man.
The new LaCrosse also nets a richer mix, which has pushed its average transaction price some $8,000 to $9,000 higher than the previous model. Additionally, the ’10 model rarely stays on dealer lots more than a week, Sweeney says, with 4,300 units sold in December.
But good news aside, Buick’s product infusion looks eerily familiar to the remake GM unsuccessfully conducted at Saturn. As with Saturn, Buick is refreshing its lineup out of a batch of stylish passenger cars from GM outposts elsewhere in the world.
The latest addition, the Regal, is right off the boat from Germany, with only minor changes from its Opel Insignia platform mate to satisfy U.S. requirements.
Next up is a 5-passenger CUV nicknamed the “Baby Enclave” for its luxury appointments, as well as a premium compact sedan targeting younger consumers under age 30 with sporty driving dynamics and upscale amenities. That vehicle is based on the Buick Excelle GM sells in China.
By 2012, Buick’s showroom will grow from three products today to five – three sedans and two CUVs.
GM stuffed a ton of new product into Saturn, too, doubling its portfolio from three vehicles to six in 22 months. Two years ago, the oldest car in its lineup was the 1-year- old Sky roadster.
The punched-up lineup showed great promise but fizzled all the same, primarily because GM could not afford the marketing needed to convince budget-conscious consumers the brand was worth the extra dollars the new products cost. Unable to sell the Saturn division last year, GM shut it down Jan. 1.
But Bierley insists the strategy is working for Buick, citing Enclave and LaCrosse data.
“Saturn was moving to a place they had not been before,” he says. “What we’re doing is bringing Buick back home to where it was. Buick always occupied a premium space with American consumers. Unpretentious luxury was always what Buick was about. That’s very timely today.”
Bierley also says Americans are re-assessing their luxury needs after a “traumatic” recession threatened their jobs and crushed the value of their homes and other investments.
Some third-party research agrees that Buick’s new-product push could not be timelier.
A study released last week from the consulting group Deloitte LLP finds U.S. car buyers between 20 and 24 years of age not only are brand-loyal but also loyal to their country. The study says more than 52% want a vehicle made in the U.S., and 42% expect to be driving the same brand five years from now.
But a different study from the Corporate Research International consulting firm uses a broader-aged sample group and shows import brands continue to surpass domestics in preference, likelihood to purchase and quality perception.
Bierley believes Buick’s strategy fits those car buyers, as well.
“People give us credit for making pretty nice cars, good quality,” he says. “That’s easier to overcome than, ‘They build junk.’
“So (the question) really becomes, ‘How do we build products that are relevant to a younger audience?’ As opposed to marketing our way out of this, it’s better that we let the product lead the way.”