Buick goes from cars to trucks

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Buick as we know it will be no more by year's end.

The 100-year-old division of General Motors Corp. is shifting gears to become primarily a producer of premium light trucks, departing from its heritage of distinctive, affordable American cars.

The company will have a record three light trucks in its six-model lineup this fall. It's goodbye to the departing Century and Regal, and hello to the upscale LaCrosse, Rainier sport-utility vehicle and Terraza sport van. The all-new 2005 LaCrosse enters as the sedan replacement. The vehicles join Buick's restyled Rendezvous SUV, including an upscale 2005 Ultra version, and LeSabre and Park Avenue cars.

Buick is heading into a more premium niche, a void created by Cadillac moving further upstream and Oldsmobile's demise by 2005.

"We're moving into a new product portfolio, even more refined and truly elevated. Rainier is the first focus, then we'll see more of the Buick trucks story, such as the refined utility vehicle," says Randall Tallerico, Buick's director of advertising and sales promotion.

This year, he says, Buick will deliver a more product-focused commitment, not just the "new flavor" of the day. Mr. Tallerico came to Buick in 2001 via Oldsmobile, where he directed advertising in 2000; he was lured to GM from spots as senior partner and international VP at Ford Motor Co. agency J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit.

Buick has to be cautious not to inherit the Oldsmobile mantle of stodgy cars driven by someone's grandfather. Thus, the shift to crossover SUVs, which carry a younger, hipper cachet. Analysts suggest Buick's shift to the light-truck side is imperative to the brand's survival.

The cars have grown "long in the tooth in the Buick stable" and are due for a change, says Jim Park, president of consultancy Global Auto Systems. The strategy, blessed by GM, gives Buick its chance to become Lexus-like in appeal, a status it's always wanted among GM divisions, he says.

aging demographics

"Everyone knows Buick has aging demographics," Mr. Park says. "In order to bring in younger [40-to-50-year-old] buyers, you have to attract them with appealing new products like light trucks. It's a dramatic shift they can afford to make, with GM backing."

"They're not going to abandon traditional buyers," he says, "but they've got to start filling in the other end with younger buyers to keep the brand alive."

Mr. Tallerico, however, denies Buick is seeking younger demographics. "Buick has always owned the mind-set of 40-to-59-year-olds who appreciate and desire very refined vehicles," he says. "The mind-set is more important than age."

Van Bussmann, senior VP with J.D. Power & Associates, says that in marketing, Buick needs to emphasize its quality record as one of the highest-rated domestics.

He believes the move toward a refreshed and expanded product line will pay off in the marketplace if positioned correctly. "If Buick goes toward SUVs, as everyone has, I suspect you will see a revival of the Buick brand," Mr. Bussmann says.

Buick's new-product story will unfold this summer. The marketer can't share a detailed media plan yet, Mr. Tallerico says. But the bulk of ads will use premium publications and prime-time TV since the whole strategy is to go upmarket. Buick's agency is Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Troy, Mich. Buick spent $128 million in 2003 to advertise its core products, down 17.9% from `02, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. Marketing executives wouldn't discuss '04 spending, but the shift to premium media and new products suggests an increase.

The GM division must also work hard to overcome sales deficits, some of which Buick expected with a shrinking lineup. March brought good news, with sales up 18% to 29,490 units, from the same period in 2003. For the first three months of 2004, however, Buick was down 6.3% to 78,012 units. Last year, Buick sold 336,788 vehicles, dropping 22% from 2002.

The automaker is clearly aware that the decisions made today could cost the sales of tomorrow. Buick wants to cast the new vehicles, launched under its "Spirit of American style" tagline, in the right social and media environments such as Buick golf sponsorships, the Emmys and other exclusive sponsorships, Mr. Tallerico says. For example, the freshened '05 Rainier, coming this fall, will promote its quiet engine and smooth power on the Emmys this year. The all-new Terraza, a 220-horsepower, $30,000-plus sport van slated for fall release, also features Buick's quiet tuning.

trucks planned for five years

Buick's truck plan has been hatching for almost five years. "We decided to dramatically widen our customer base into trucks, so we brought out the Rendezvous crossover for 2002, the Rainier SUV for 2004 and the Terraza crossover sport van for 2005," says Mark Hines, marketing director for Buick midsize cars. "In each case, we have offered refined vehicles that reflect Buick's traditional strengths."

At the New York Auto Show last week, Buick planned to unveil a new concept that suggests the future design direction for its vehicles. The Detroit show in January revealed the Terraza, being marketed as a crossover rather than a minivan, and the Rendezvous Ultra SUV. The new LaCrosse was introduced at the Chicago Auto Show in February.

Buick will pull some tricks out of the advertising hat as it pushes the brand upscale.

Taking advantage of its position as the nation's largest standing golf sponsor, Buick will show off its lineup at events such as the Buick Classic (June), Buick Open (July-August), Buick Championship (fall) and other golf events.

Tiger Woods signed on again in February at the Buick Invitational in La Jolla Hills, Calif. The multiyear deal ensures Mr. Woods will continue to pump Buick vehicles.

Buick will continue to push its successful "Tiger Trap" online film and Web sweepstakes campaign. The buick.com site has received at least 4 million unique visits, Mr. Tallerico says. Mr. Woods "helps amplify who we are in a way that's consistent with our brand personality," Mr. Tallerico says. "We've signed him to the end of the decade."

ghost story

That much can't be said of Harley Earl. Buick is rethinking its strategy of using the ghost of the legendary car designer in its ads. Mr. Earl, who died in 1959, was the famed design chief who envisioned distinctive Buicks of the '50s and earlier. Some critics have called the ads downright spooky, saying the general public doesn't know who Mr. Earl is.

Despite critics, Buick marketing executives say consumers get the message. "What we're hearing is: `I forgot how classy Buick is,' " says Mr. Tallerico. "It's the past influencing the future. It's the springboard for some very strong new product."

Mr. Tallerico hints that Harley Earl could see life again. "People are clearly taking away it's the new direction of Buick," he says.

David Moore, executive creative director at McCann, developed the Earl concept ads. Mr. Tallerico says of Mr. Moore: "He got a lot of people talking about Buick."

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