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AUTO MARKETING;TROUBLED BADGES DISCOVER FRIENDLY DEALERS, VALUE PRICE;BUICK, OLDS, MERCURY CAST ABOUT FOR SHARE OF BOOMERS' BUYING MINDSET

By Published on .

As baby boomers pass into their 50s, some of Detroit's most venerable brands are trying to catch up with them. In a huge and risky marketing challenge, domestic automakers are recasting some of their brands to appeal to a generation known for its independence and individualism.

The stakes are huge: Baby boomers account for 60% of all vehicle purchases. As a group, boomers are retaining their own goals and needs as they age; they are not adopting the desires of the pre-baby boomers. Thus, boomers have largely shunned some of Detroit's more dated lineup.

Here's how some in the industry plans to strike back:

OLDSMOBILE

Oldsmobile sales plummeted from 1 million in 1985 to 372,000 in 1995. Moreover, GM sister brand Cadillac already had staked out pre-boomers, the mature buyers of traditional American upscale cars, leaving Oldsmobile to find new territory.

So Olds' strategy is to go after boomer buyers of Japanese cars, crafting a boomer-friendly product lineup that borrows heavily from such popular cars as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Maxima.

Second, the company is training dealers to adopt an amiable, consultative selling approach that puts customers-not aggressive sales people-in control.

Starting with the Aurora in '94, Oldsmobile product planners are also attempting to seize the "form-follows-function" high ground claimed by the Japanese.

The exterior emphasis is on minimal ornamentation, clean lines and enduring styling. The interiors, featuring rich textures and easy-to-read instruments, are intended toproject a sense of understated luxury.

New models on tap include the new Bravada, a sport utility, which began rolling off the assembly line in late February; the '97 Cutlass, a replacement for the 14-year-old Ciera; and, in early calendar 1998 the Intrigue, which replaces the Cutlass Supreme.

To meet what Doug Schumacker, assistant brand manager at Oldsmobile, calls baby boomers' retention of "needs of their youth," including good gas mileage and space, all future Olds-mobile models will seat five, not six, and project a feeling of "smaller on the outside and bigger on the inside," says Bob Clark, Cutlass brand manager.

However, the division's cars won't be available with stick shifts, since research shows too little demand, Olds General Manager John Rock says.

Oldsmobile also plans to pack many standard features into its vehicles, but retain what it believes will be attractive prices. This is aimed at appealing to another boomer trait, the desire to make smart financial decisions.

But overhauling the product lineup is in many ways the "easy part," says Oldsmobile spokesman Gus Buenz.

The hard part is overhauling the culture of Oldsmobile's independent-minded dealers to provide no-hassle, consultative selling pioneered at GM by Saturn Corp.

BUICK

Baby boomers marching past 50 will naturally become more attuned to Buick's large, well-cushioned notion of premium cars in the American tradition, the company believes.

But the division still plans various changes to become even more attractive to boomers, says Frank Porter, division cross-brand coordination manager.

The redesigned '97 Century, for example, has a more responsive ride and less chrome than the current Century.

The division is planning to market them at a reasonable price to appeal to boomers' desire to make wise financial choices.

Boomers, although they "may have a lot of income," says Mr. Porter, "want high value and don't want to be ostentatious."

Buick planners expect the average age of Century buyers to drop from about 62 to about 53 after the redesign of the marque.

MERCURY

The average Mercury owner is pushing 60 years old, well outside prime boomer territory.

To appeal to younger buyers, the division is chasing two boomer phenomena: sport utilities and Japanese sedans.

The '97 Mountaineer, a rebadged Ford Explorer, will be pitched to affluent women seeking practicality and comfort, not a rugged off-roader. Mountaineer target buyers have a median age of 42 and a median income of $70,000.

As for cars, the Mystique and new Sable were styled to attract import buyers. One out of five Mercury owners are currently lured from an import, Mercury says. Mercury and its agency Young & Rubicam, Detroit, wants that figure to be one out of three.

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