Oldsmobile is General Motors' oldest nameplate, with, alas, many of its oldest customers. That has fueled rumors of its impending demise over the last several years.
Now it has established itself as GM's up-scale import-fighting division, separating itself from Buick and Cadillac. For Oldsmobile, that repositioning was like a trip to the fountain of youth.
Last year, the division dropped the last of its old-style cars - Cutlass and Eighty-Eight, leaving the "Centennial Lineup" of Alero, Intrigue, Aurora, Bravada and Silhouette to carry the Olds banner.
"Our sales are declining for this year," says Debra Kelly-Ennis, Oldsmobile's new marketing general manager. "In large part that's a function of the discontinuation of the Cutlass and the Eighty-Eight."
She quickly points out, however, that sales of the vehicles remaining have remained steady from year to year. Not only that, but the Oldsmobile demographic has changed.
The average age for an Oldsmobile buyer in 1996 was more than 60 years. In 2000, that age dropped to about 49 years. Even more surprising is the percentage of its buyers younger than 35. In 1977 only 7% of the division's buyers were that young. This year, it's 23%.
Almost 50% of Oldsmobile's customers now are college graduates. That's up from 33% in 1993.
"What Oldsmobile has done is completely transform its buyer base in a relatively short period of time," says Ms. Kelly-Ennis, who says her main job is to help drive traffic to Oldsmobile's 2,900 dealers. "Oldsmobile's big challenge is that we have wonderful cars. We have a whole, re-designed lineup and we really haven't had that many consumers coming into our dealerships to see the new cars. We haven't really broken through from an awareness point of view.
"I want to make certain we have world-class advertising at Oldsmobile that announces this whole new lineup of cars," she says. "The time is now. We have all the cars with the Bravada launch, so the timing is perfect."
A new ad campaign will break early next year. Two agencies are competing for the business, and Oldsmobile's dealer and general manager committees will help select the winning campaign.
Another way Oldsmobile wants to help its dealers is to give them something to help them close the deal. It recently started a deferred-payment financing program that Ms. Kelly-Ennis says has worked very well.
She says 25% of the people who have bought using the deferred payment wouldn't normally have shopped for an Olds.
A deferred-payment plan is one where Olds supports the APR for a year and the customers pay off the car in a shorter span of time, later in the agreement.
"Our sales in October, since we tried this particular program, are up 33%," Ms. Kelly-Ennis reports. "A lot of people questioned what kind of buyer we'd be bringing in. What we saw with this particular program is that we're bringing in younger buyers, females, very affluent, many making as much as $75,000 or more. So we're bringing in the right kind of consumers."