Pull the Plug on Buick

August 24, 2009 at 12:35 pm Leave a comment

Buick_Logo

(Please read all the way to my humble postscript written nine months after the original post.)

Newsweek reports Buick’s woes as the brand struggles even after surviving the brand massacre that came with GM’s bankruptcy. Buick tried to introduce a plug-in crossover that was quickly derided for its similarity to the Vue from the late-Saturn division. GM’s clone-mobiles were the symbol of its decline as it transmogrified core vehicles into Chevys, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Saturns and Cadillacs. The W Platform was perhaps GM’s most vigorous exercise, undergirding approximately 10 redundant models. In the end, the new Buick crossover has been canceled.

As the Obama Administration was forcing the elimination of GM’s comatose brands, the company insisted on maintaining Buick. Per multiple media reports, primary rationale was:

  • The brand’s popularity in China
  • The importance of its “near-luxury” niche

The arguments smack of GM’s bullheadedness over the decades to keep every last nameplate regardless of the resultant cannibalization of sales and watering-down of product. If the brand is adored in China, then build it and offer it there–after selling it off à la Hummer, Saturn and Saab.

As for “near-luxury,” that is an elusive segment, the pursuit of which has often inflicted reputational damage on the manufacturer, seen notably in Jaguar’s X series that tried to be the cheap Jag and just came off as cheap. GM itself is the king of “near-luxury” infamy: the 1980s Cadillac Cimarron, a barely disguised version of the Chevrolet Cavalier economy car.

The Lexus 350 is Buick’s admitted marketing target. This is Lexus’ “entry-level” sedan, its near-luxury model built in GM-esque fashion upon parent Toyota’s top-selling Camry. Dan Neil of the LA Times gives the new Buick LaCrosse a strong review, calling it an “American Lexus,” but wonders if its attributes and competitive price are enough to justify the brand.

The “age issue” is a constant factor in charting Buick’s health. The Newsweek article cites perceptions of Buick as an “old person’s car,” and Dan Neil identifies the age of the average Buick owner as 68. My mother recalls my great-grandfather, Willie Rapson, would drive nothing but Buick Roadmasters in the 1940s and 1950s and looked down upon any other vehicle, including my grandfather’s Hudson. Not the kind of buzz to burn up Twitter.

Marketing comes down to meeting underserved needs with available resources, supported by brand equity. “Near-luxury” is not an underserved need thanks to a preponderance of cars filling the niche. Add to that GM’s lack of resources and Buick’s lack of brand equity. Time to pull the plug on more than just the proposed plug-in.

POSTSCRIPT 1: Buick uses crowdsourcing to figure out how to market the new LaCrosse to a more youthful demographic, but the young social media specialist soliciting feedback on Facebook commits a damning Freudian slip.

POSTSCRIPT 2: I’m sure GM has been waiting for this contrite admission nine months after I wrote this post: Buick is proving itself a worthy brand. Sales are way up and most importantly, average age of Buick buyers is dropping. Now it must buck the GM habit of recycling models sold by other divisions (much easier now with fewer divisions) and establish a true niche between Chevy and Cadillac.

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Entry filed under: Branding, Creativity, Marketing. Tags: , , , , , , .

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