The General Motors Corp. marque last week was launched in China, and government officials, business executives and the country's nouveau riche are the main targets for the three luxury Buick sedans being marketed there.
Priced between $36,000 and $48,000, the three models-the Buick Xin Shi Ji, Buick GLX and Buick GL-are based on the Buick Century and Buick Regal. They're made locally by Shanghai General Motors, a 50/50 joint venture between GM and Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., at $1.6 billion one of the largest foreign investments in China.
The cars debuted June 15 at China's biggest trade fair, Auto Shanghai '99, and production through August sold out quickly, said Philip Murtaugh, exec VP of Shanghai GM.
In an unusual move, Shanghai GM snubbed global Buick agency McCann-Erickson Worldwide and awarded Bates Worldwide its first GM business in the world. Bates China, Shanghai, is handling.
The fanfare for Buick started last December, when the first car ceremoniously rolled off the assembly line. It was accompanied by a corporate-image ad campaign.
Brand-oriented advertising followed with the debut this month. The mostly TV campaign touts the Buick's performance, safety and comfort, and positions the brand between pricey imports-laden with heavy taxes-and local brands-of dubious quality.
Wendy Tso, managing director of Bates, said the campaign has proceeded as planned and wasn't altered due to the anti-U.S. backlash following the May 7 NATO bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade.
"The Americanness of the car was never really stressed anyway, so we didn't think it was a problem," she said.
REVAMPED FOR CHINA
The U.S. models were exhaustively revamped to fit the preferences of Chinese drivers who like, for example, to feel the road below them. The cars also are smaller than their U.S. counterparts.
Buick is hardly a new brand name in China. The first Buicks appeared in the country before World War I; Buick opened a Shanghai sales office in 1929. But this is the first time GM has built cars in China.
GM executives are optimistic that the market for luxury sedans in China is wide open, citing the Shanghai city government's order for 2,200 cars.
Shanghai GM will start with 20,000 cars a year, now available in five big cities, increasing to national distribution of 100,000 cars a year.
GM has come late to modern day China. Germany's Volkswagen is the market leader, selling more than 200,000 locally made Santana sedans, largely as taxis and police cars. An upgraded model is due before yearend.
Honda Motor Co. is in the game with a new Accord sedan, and Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Daihatsu Motor Corp. all have production or assembly deals with a Chinese partner.
China produces only 1.63 million vehicles a year-not much for a nation of 1.2 billion-so experts say the potential for growth is enormous despite the