BUICK HOPES BOOMERS JOIN ITS 60SOMETHING CLIENTELE;GM DIVISION POSITIONS MARQUE AS SENSIBLE BUT LUXURIOUS BRAND

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General Motors Corp.'s Buick division has a split personality.

Buick is trying to woo younger customers from the baby-boomer ranks while retaining its owner base of consumers in their 60s.

Under GM's year-old brand management organization, Buick is a luxury brand for sensible buyers who like traditional, enduring design. So Buicks have more goodies, like upscale interior finishes, than GM's Chevrolet division, deemed the more affordable brand. GM's brand system uses customer needs to differentiate each model and their respective targets.

AFFORDABLE LUXURY

Buick's remodeled 1997 Park Avenue sedan will fulfill the needs of customers wanting a large, luxury car at a reasonable price, said Katherine Benoit, brand manager.

With its first major overhaul in 12 years, the Park Avenue hopes to attract "40-something, maybe 50-year-old buyers .*.*. to build a new customer base," she said.

The average age of current Park Avenue owners is somewhere between the late 50s and early 60s.

Ms. Benoit will reach out to the younger target by means of a 24-city test drive tour, continuing through yearend. Buick will invite up to 400 of the target audience and current owners per city. "The important thing is to get people into the car," she said.

`COMPELLING' ADS

The Park Avenue will also get what she dubbed a "compelling" ad campaign from agency McCann-Erickson Worldwide, with a late-year rollout. But her plans aren't firm and she declined to discuss spending.

"We haven't decided how to allocate our ad budget. We may take a look at changing our entire consumer influence on how we target and how we reach them," she said.

Auto consultant Susan Jacobs is skeptical about Park Avenue's strategy. "I think Buick is going to be very disappointed," said the president of Jacobs & Associates. "People in their 40s aren't rushing to buy the Park Avenue, which may cause Buick to start to question their brand strategy."

Buick, which doesn't have entries in the popular truck, minivan or sport utility vehicle segments, is struggling. Unit sales fell by more than 24% in August from a year ago, and '96 sales were off 5% in the first eight months.

When Buick introduced its freshened 1995 Riviera, it too was expected to attract younger buyers. But the coupe, dubbed by several auto experts as the nicest-looking in Buick's lineup, only sells some 20,000 units annually.

Riviera sales aren't likely to rise dramatically because the 1997 model won't get a national ad push when introduced this fall.

"It doesn't make sense for us to do a traditional national launch," said Michael Wright, brand manager for the car. "It's a niche-type vehicle."

MORE REGIONAL APPROACH

Riviera will get more regional ads and a direct-mail program for previous Riviera owners. The average Riviera owner is around 52 years old; about 42% are female, and most are empty-nesters.

The Riviera's low annual sales volume makes it "practically invisible in the market," said Jay Houghton of consultancy A.T. Kearney Inc. "It's a gorgeous car, but it's not enough to turn around the years of image inertia at Buick."

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