Buick sets its sights on boomers with new models

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While many automakers chase after Generation Y and X, Buick is going after baby boomers-again.

The General Motors Corp. brand has, since at least 1986, tried off and on to attract younger buyers, without much success. Now it`s going back after boomers, while also trying to hold onto loyal older consumers.

Margaret Brooks, marketing director of Buick since April, said the reason the brand hasn't succeeded in its mission to reach a younger demographic "has been a function of our product portfolio." Translation: Buick didn't have the right models.

But, she said, "we'll begin the transformation" with the new 2005 LaCrosse midsize sedan, which launched its ad blitz Thanksgiving Day, and the new Terraza sport-utility-looking minivan, due in March. She's confident the two new models will attract baby boomers and account for 40% of all Buick sales in calendar 2005, and that the Rainier SUV and Rendezvous sport wagon will account for 25% of total '05 sales. "A year from now Buick will have a whole new face."

A Buick dealer, who asked not to be named, said he sold the first three LaCrosse sedans he got; all the buyers were in their early 60s. That's no surprise to Ms. Brooks, who said loyal customers are typically the first to buy new models.

looking for a halo

The dealer is disappointed with the LaCrosse's styling. "We needed a halo car to relaunch Buick," he said. "LaCrosse does not have break-through styling, but the advertising will be." A second Buick dealer agreed the midsize sedan's styling isn't dramatic. "You can have all the ad campaigns in the world, but if you got a vehicle that's OK for a 60-year-old or older, you're in trouble."

As reported first last week by Advertising Age, Buick's new umbrella ad theme from Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson, Troy, Mich., will use Aerosmith's "Dream On" in all forthcoming ads. The new tag "Dream Up" aims to convey Buick's positioning of "aspirational, yet-attainable" premium vehicles, said Ms. Brooks.

It replaces the 2-year-old "Spirit of American Style," which used a "ghost" of legendary GM designer Harley Earl. Before that Buick tried "It's all good," which lasted less than a year.

Buick spent $83 million in measured media through August and $129 million in calendar 2003, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

While GM sibling Cadillac has been able to attract younger buyers with new models in recent years, "Buick really hasn't done anything to really raise the antenna of young people," said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific. His research shows the median owner age across Buick's lineup is 70, with 63% over age 65 and nearly 55% retired. The youngest owners in Buick's family are Rendezvous drivers, with a median age of 58.

downside of loyalty

"The downside of brand loyalty," said Wes Brown, consultant with Iceology, is having your customers age with the brand and failing to attract new ones. GM's Cadillac brand was in a similar boat a few years ago, but managed to overcome it with cool-looking new models and catchy ads using a Led Zeppelin song.

GM has said it will spend $3 billion developing new Buick models. Coming a year from now is the Lucerne, which experts said will succeed the Park Avenue.

Mr. Peterson said Buick is historically known as "an opulent suburban cruising machine" for professionals, like doctors, lawyers and dentists. "Now the world has kind of changed but people's perception of Buick hasn't."

Ms. Brooks maintained Buick's research with baby boomers, mainly import owners, showed they had a favorable image of the brand but felt Buick didn't make vehicles for them. Buick, she said, showed this group LaCrosse without the Buick name and Lexus was the most-guessed brand.

Buick has a long drive to regain its heady days. According to Automotive News, the brand's peak was in 1984, when it sold 941,611 cars in the U.S., giving it a 9% share of all cars sold that year and 6.6% total industry share with trucks (Buick only sold cars then). The marketer's total share slipped to 1.9% through October 2004 with 266,881 cars and trucks sold vs. a share of 2% for the same period a year ago when it sold 282,090 units, Automotive News figures show.

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