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The Buick is back! No, really...

01-04-2011 00:00:00

While Butler University's long-shot bid collapsed Monday night against the University of Connecticut in the NCAA title game, basketball fans got a glimpse of another Cinderella story that may have a better chance of success. Buick, the long-struggling General Motors brand, recently signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the NCAA, highlighted by the debut of a new “anthem” commercial during the final days of March Madness.“Our intention is to plant the flag and inspire a reappraisal of Buick,” said Craig Bierley, the brand’s marketing chief.

Not many Americans are aware that Buick is still around, Bierley concedes. Indeed, many analysts have long urged GM to abandon Buick, and it was expected to be one of the first brands to go when the giant carmaker plunged into government-controlled bankruptcy in 2009.The U.S. government forced GM to cut four of its eight North American brands. In the end, Saturn, Hummer and Pontiac were closed, while Saab was sold. Buick survived, along with Chevrolet, Cadillac and GMC.

Buick not only survived, it’s now starting to thrive. For the first two months of the year, the nameplate, which is being positioned as a mid-luxury brand, outsold Lexus, a vehicle brand that has long been dominant in the U.S. luxury market.Lexus regained its lead in March and the two carmakers were, in turn, surpassed by BMW for the first quarter. Nonetheless, Buick’s sales are readily outpacing the industry’s overall recovery. The GM division sold 15,663 cars and crossovers last month, a 20.9 percent increase over the same month a year before. For the first three months of the year, sales totaled 44,739 — a 39.2 percent jump over the previous year.

Equally significant is the fact that those increases came even as Buick trimmed back on sales to rental companies — long the dumping ground for the brand’s unwanted offerings.Of course, it helps to have a largely new line-up. Buick’s oldest model is the still-strong Enclave, introduced for the 2008 model year. The crossover was the first sign that something was changing at Buick. It not only won a number of awards, but also began attracting the sort of younger, more affluent and better educated buyers Buick hadn’t seen in decades.

Since then, a procession of new car offerings has been added to a Buick line long starved for product, including the big LaCrosse sedan, the 4-door Regal, and, later this year, the compact Verano. At the upcoming Shanghai Motor Show, meanwhile, Buick will pull the wraps off a show car likely to morph into an all-new compact crossover.Buick’s decision to reveal the concept vehicle in China rather than at April’s New York Auto Show is significant, yet not really surprising. In fact, Ed Welburn, GM’s global design director, acknowledges Buick likely only still exists “because of China.”

In a curious twist of fate, the last emperor owned a Buick, which was later captured by the communists only to become the prize possession of Mao’s long-time lieutenant Zhou Enlai. When GM approached Chinese officials a dozen years ago with plans to put a factory in Shanghai, the company was told it had to produce Buicks rather than one of the company’s stronger brands. Since then, GM has grown to become China’s largest automaker, and Buick one of its largest foreign brands.

Now the challenge for Buick is to reproduce their success in China here in the United States, “where the perception [of the Buick brand] is out of touch with reality,” lamented Chris Perry, GM’s North American marketing director. 

The NCAA campaign — which will include basketball, football, hockey and women's soccer — is central to Buick’s push to rebuild its image. Meanwhile, the GM brand may also benefit from the impact of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that have crippled the Japanese auto industry. Michael Jackson, CEO of the giant AutoNation retail network, warned this week that Japanese vehicles will likely be in short supply in the coming months. That could be particularly true for Lexus, as all of the Toyota luxury brand’s products are currently assembled in Japan. Toyota is only just beginning to restart assembly lines shuttered by the March 11 disaster. And the ongoing nuclear crisis, which has left the country short of power, is expected to limit automotive manufacturing for some time to come.

Still, Buick’s long-term success is anything but guaranteed, cautioned automotive analyst Dan Gorrell of AutoStrategem, a Southern California-based market research firm. The Buick brand still attracts an older, less affluent buyer — although that is beginning to shift. And Buick — like the rest of GM — still sees sales lag in key coastal markets.

The brand also has a smaller line-up than key competitors, such as Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. But Bierley is optimistic that with fewer divisional mouths to feed GM can now afford to give Buick more of what it needs. The new Verano, in particular, “opens up the playing field for us,” targeting a compact luxury segment long dominated by brands imported from overseas. As March Madness fans well know, there are plenty of long-shot teams that enter the annual tournament only to see their dreams, like Butler’s, shot down. But Buick is betting it has the staying power to go all the way. Whether it’s a Cinderella team remains to be seen, but so far, Buick is defying the odds.

 

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