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Buick Marketers Take Cues From Cadillac Revival

Buick General Manager Susan Docherty says the brand’s 3-product portfolio finally provides the focus it needs.

WARREN, MI – General Motors Corp. will borrow a page from Cadillac’s playbook as marketers try to resuscitate the Buick brand.

As with Cadillac, which developed a cult-like following the introduction of its second-generation Escalade fullsize SUV before launching the highly praised CTS sports sedan, Buick will try to capitalize on the popularity of its Enclave cross/utility vehicle ahead of the redesigned LaCrosse midsize passenger car.

GM, which will unveil the ’10 LaCrosse at next month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, moved the latest model from an aging W3 platform to a new Epsilon II architecture for the extensive redesign.

At a media preview of the new LaCrosse here, Susan Docherty, North America vice president-Buick-Pontiac-GMC Channel, draws a parallel with the Cadillac brand, whose average buyers just a few years ago were in their 70s and living in Florida.

“They wore white shoes, plaid coats (and) wraparound glasses,” Docherty says of Cadillac, where she played a key role in managing its renaissance. “So when you think about what we’ve done in a very short time on Cadillac, we have the same potential at Buick.”

Cadillac benefited both from an edgy, one-of-kind design and a marketing message scored by rock band Led Zeppelin. GM also had deeper pockets to advertise, allowing Cadillac to lord over major sporting events, such as the Super Bowl, for several consecutive years.

Times are tougher now, and Buick recently ended its multimillion relationship with professional-golfer Tigers Woods. Docherty says the brand has no plans to seek another celebrity representative. Additionally, Cadillac’s design jolted consumers, whereas Buick’s styling arguably follows a more subtle path.

But Docherty would disagree that Buick’s elegant design is not affecting the market, moving awareness of the brand to a younger, larger, more-diverse and wealthier population. She points to the Enclave, whose average buyer is age 55, compared with 70 years for the Buick portfolio prior to the CUV’s launch about 18 months ago. Enclave intenders’ median age is about 44 years old.

“Ninety days ago, I was in Atlanta,” Docherty tells Ward’s. “I sat with 20 Enclave owners, who all came to Buick for the first time, and one of the comments they made was (over)the exterior design of the Enclave. They wanted something different.

“It wasn’t that people weren’t happy with the Mercedes or Lexus they traded in, or (with their) Volvo or Acura. It was, ‘I was taken by the design of the Buick Enclave, and I had no problem buying American if it lives up to the quality reputation of the products I’ve been driving.’”

Which suggests a buyer’s birth date may not matter so much, after all. With all the plaudits Cadillac has received recently, its average buyer’s age remains in the low 60s. The difference, Cadillac officials tell Ward’s, is the brand now commands higher sticker prices. Most importantly is perception, with polls showing more buyers than ever consider the Cadillac brand as “excellent.”

Docherty promises a marketing push this spring that will “pleasantly surprise” industry watchers and “bring the excitement back” to Buick. She also expects the new LaCrosse to give Buick’s message the same legs the CTS lent Cadillac. The Lacrosse’s styling draws heavily from the Buick Invicta and Riviera, a recent pair of critically received concepts that were highly influenced by GM’s design studios in China.

“The (design) says the transformation that began with (the) Enclave continues, and that if you thought you fell in love with the Enclave, you’re really going to love what you see in the new LaCrosse,” says Docherty, who thinks Americans carry a latent fondness for the brand based on its rich design history.

“It also indicates we think there is a lot of career runway for Buick, and that it can be a contender on the world stage against some of the very best brands out there that provide premium offerings, like Lexus.”

LaCrosse’s twin in Europe, the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia, recently was designated the European Car of the Year. Media applauded its “richness of equipment” and “sophisticated” technology options.

Docherty says Buick also will benefit from its growing role as a global brand, as well as one of four marques on which GM intends to focus its resources.

“This is a brand that does very well in China,” she says of the country that receives a greater range of Buick products targeting younger consumers than does the U.S. “It gives us the opportunity to leverage some of the great work that gets done in our Asia/Pacific design studios for Buick. So I think there is a lot of upside potential.”

In the U.S., Docherty says the brand’s 3-product portfolio finally provides it the focus it needs. Just three years ago, Buick showrooms carried eight models. She declines to speculate on how many models would make the perfect portfolio.

“I can’t tell you that I know the number, but I will tell you it needs to be a focused portfolio, where we can not only drive profits and volume but also have a vehicle that is world-class,” Docherty says.

“I think we need fewer, better, faster entries into the market, rather than a whole shelf load of products that are mediocre. I’ll take two entries, three entries, as long as they are world-class and hit the sweet spot of the segment.”

Docherty declines to speculate on the future of Buick’s third product, the slow-selling Lucerne fullsize sedan. Sales plummeted 31.4% through November, according to Ward’s data, and output at the Hamtramck, MI, plant was suspended Nov. 1. The model will resume production Jan. 12 with a slower line rate.

“In terms of addressing our more traditional customer base, (the Lucerne) hits a home run, so I’m happy with its role,” she says.

Docherty says deliveries this year of the fullsize-sedan segment are down 35% industry wide, marking a 16-year-low. She blames some of the decline on midsize cars, which now feature the spaciousness and options previously found only in large cars.

She compares fullsize cars with fullsize SUVs, a segment that tanked with the summer’s spike in fuel prices. Given their purposeful role, both segments likely will settle at a solid, but not smoking, sales pace.

“I do not think (either one is) going to die,” Docherty says. “Not only are they profitable for us, but they are profitable for our dealers.”

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