Buick Plots Three-Week Ad Blitz Around March Madness

GM Brand Aims for Luxury Positioning, Drops Tagline

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As Buick begins a new relationship with the NCAA today during the opening of March Madness, the General Motors brand is stopping the madness its marketing departments have created over the last decade with at least eight different strategies and slogans. The brand will now go without a tagline in its messaging -- and viewers will be seeing a lot of that messaging over the next few weeks.

Buick has not traditionally been considered a true luxury brand, but the automaker is out to change that. Since September 2009, Buick has used "The New Class of World Class" as its positioning and ad slogan. It was by some counts the eighth tagline and positioning since 2000, with such forgettable castoffs as "Dream Up," "Isn't It Time For A Real Car," and "It's All Good." Buick Director of Buick Advertising and Sales Promotion Craig Bierley said the "New Class" line would no longer be used, and a new "brand anthem" ad that will break in the NCAA Final Four on April 3, created by agency Leo Burnett, will be sloganless. "We are just going to use the brand and the three-shield logo from now on, and create the impression and image we want without tying ourselves to one line."

Buick VP-Marketing Tony DiSalle said he is expecting "over 1 billion ad impressions for the brand in the next three weeks." To get there, Buick brand is sponsoring post-game shows on Turner and CBS network coverage of the games, as well as content on NCAA official apps on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Foursquare. In addition, Buick will run model ads in game, on the web and on radio, especially for its newly redesigned Regal sedan.

Buick is taking over GM's big NCAA sponsorship from Pontiac, which in past years had brought the biggest presence of any automaker in March Madness. GM retired the Pontiac brand in the wake of its 2009 Chapter 11 bankruptcy, so Buick and Nissan luxury brand Infiniti are the only two auto brands with "Corporate Partner" level sponsorship this year. GM will also advertise its other brands during the games, and has extended Buick's NCAA commitment into other properties such as the Men's Lacrosse Championship and NCAA Football next fall.

"College sports is a perfect place for Buick to be because of the high degree of engagement by university alma maters," said Buick's Mr. DiSalle. Alma maters mean college degrees, and those tend to mean higher incomes and prime audiences for luxury brands.

In addition to ads, the brand is sponsoring a philanthropic cause through its sponsorship. A series of films will spotlight former student athletes doing good works, carrying the theme, "Human Highlight Reel." A collection of true stories of human achievement will run on TV, and then online at www.ncaa.com/buick, with companies supporting the causes and fans encouraged to donate. One such profile is of Emmanuel Ohonme who played basketball at the University of North Dakota and founded Samaritan's Feet, a nonprofit that has so far provided 3 million pairs of shoes to impoverished children in 40 countries.

With its strategy, GM is attempting to create some space between Buick and its more traditional luxury brand, Cadillac. The two brands have some overlapping pricing, such as the Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac CTS and SRX. But GM's U.S. marketing chief Chris Perry said "there is room for us to have two luxury brands because they attract and target two very different kinds of buyers." Cadillac, said Mr. Perry, is for the extrovert who likes bold styling and a powerful brand statement, while Buick is attracting a more introverted luxury buyer.

Buick has shaved more than 10 years off its average buyer age in the last year down to about 60. The company is out to drive it even lower to get more of the younger baby boomers and gen Xers. The company is launching a new small Buick, the Verano, in 2012, which will be priced around $23,000 to $25,000 in the hope of attracting younger wallets. But it will be a long haul.

"Despite some excellent new product, Buick will have a tough time catching on with the under-50 crowd because the brand is basically an unknown," said Daniel Gorrell, industry consultant with AutoStrategem. "And many more familiar brands are serving up some great product these days."

Having been targeted by the White House Auto Industry task force for closure during GM's federally assisted bankruptcy, Buick is now the fastest-growing brand in the auto industry. The company said sales were up 48% last year over 2009, and Buick was the fourth best-selling luxury brand after Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Buick outsold Lexus in January and February, and was up 73% last month. Buick is also GM's biggest brand in China.

According to Automotive News, Buick unit sales in 2010 (cars and trucks) were 155,389 units, up 52%, the first year since 2005 that the brand's sales did not decline. According to Kantar, measured spending on Buick last year was $140 million, excluding dealers.

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