NEW YORK – Buick continues to drive new customers to General Motors, with 40% of the division’s buyers through the first quarter coming from other auto makers, says the brand’s marketing chief Tony DiSalle.

Importantly, more takeovers are coming from outside Buick’s Midwestern stronghold.

“We’re growing here, in the Northeast,” DiSalle tells Ward’s at a Buick event here. “We’re starting to see growth in the Southeast, as well. There is certainly untapped potential in other parts of the country,” such as the South-Central region, Texas and California. There is a lot of upside for (Buick) business.”

However, many shoppers still have a “false familiarity” with the brand, he says. They still are thinking of the land yachts of recent history, rather than today’s dynamic sedans, such as the LaCrosse and Regal, as well as the hot-selling Enclave cross/utility vehicle.

“They say, ‘Yeah, I know what Buick is,’ but are mentally carrying around older Buick models,” DiSalle says, admitting his greatest challenge remains putting people in the seats of the brand’s new products. “When we do, their consideration goes through the roof.”

It works best, he says, when dealers take the product into their local communities. Buick marketers have plans on that front in the coming months, although DiSalle declines to detail.

“That’s really the only way to scale this nationally, for the dealers to take the product out,” he says. “We have some creative stuff coming.”

DiSalle points to Buick’s new deal with online bookseller Amazon as one example of the brand’s unique marketing ideas. Buick is among a handful of companies to buy screensaver advertisements that appear on the Kindle reader.

The Amazon ads come on the heels of a big marketing push during last month’s National Collegiate Athletic Assn. basketball tournament, where Buick was a sponsor, advertised heavily and drove viewers to its website for videos of inspirational stories from former athletes.

The NCAA sponsorship will continue this year and branch into other sports, such as football, and more human-interest stories will appear at the website.

DiSalle says the NCAA push proved successful, with Buick.com experiencing its highest website traffic ever in March and seeing a “substantial” increase in Facebook fans. Feedback was positive, too, he says, supporting Buick’s new message of friendly luxury.

DiSalle’s remarks come after introducing IntelliLink at the auto show here, an in-vehicle wireless connectivity and customizable infotainment option it will roll out through the brand with the ’12 model year. It will appear as standard equipment on the Verano compact car launching at the end of 2011.

The technology uses Bluetooth or USB to connect the driver’s smart phone to a 7- or 8-in., high-resolution touch-screen display in the vehicle’s center stack. It then allows streaming audio through the phone from providers such as Pandora and Stitcher SmartRadio.

Buick sees it as a safe way to integrate the smartphone with the vehicle because it keeps drivers’ eyes on the road and enhances the entertainment experience.

Smartphones are not necessary, as the system also works with a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, USB flash drive or digital audio player. It links with OnStar, too, for onscreen, turn-by-turn navigation.

DiSalle expects IntelliLink will become a sub-brand for Buick, much like OnStar or eAssist fuel-saving technology. It also represents a cost-effective way to keep the brand’s infotainment competitive with systems from other auto makers.

“You have all the basics there already – the Bluetooth chips, the touch screen, OnStar,” DiSalle says. “It just becomes a matter of pulling it all together.

GM research shows 70% of new-car buyers want some form of connectivity with their vehicle.

jamend@wardsauto.com