Buick lets blue hair down

New digital creatives freshen brand image

The grandpa of auto brands is trying to be more like the fun uncle.

Buick has long been identified with large, smooth-riding sedans that appeal to elderly buyers. But with a changing product mix that now includes a turbocharged sports sedan and a compact crossover, Buick is diversifying its marketing approach as well, venturing into advertising media that are popular with young, connected millennials, though not walking away from its core market or message.

One result was a collaboration with Zach King, a trick cinematographer who works in a medium called Vine, a smartphone app used to create and quickly share looping 6-second video snippets. A series of basketball-themed videos King created for Buick features mind-bending effects such as King himself transforming in a flash into Dick Vitale, or a car hood shooting a ball with an assist from the trunk lid.

Meanwhile, on YouTube, Buick partnered with music producer Kurt Hugo Schneider to create a video featuring a Regal GS and a rhythm section composed of millennials dribbling basketballs, slamming car doors and revving the turbo engine. The video has racked up more than 1.1 million views since being posted in late March. Another video starring the Regal features a song by the Internet comedy and advertising team Rhett & Link, lampooning the nation's cellphone-obsessed culture.

For Buick, such projects are a chance to capitalize on the huge followings of online entertainment creators and to showcase the brand's updated lineup to younger consumers who might not notice it otherwise.

But brand executives say the effort isn't about targeting specific age groups as customers. Rather, it's about developing a more fun image for the brand, centered on shattering expectations among the young and old alike.

The same theme is behind a recent TV commercial that pokes fun at the brand with a montage of confused people -- ranging from a young valet to senior citizens -- who don't recognize the latest Buicks as Buicks. And it follows the mildly humorous "You don't know Buick" TV campaign that employed celebrities such as Shaquille O'Neal, Peyton Manning and supermodel Marissa Miller to pitch Buicks as an attainable luxury.

"We're a brand that's very approachable and stylish and luxurious, but also isn't afraid to be unabashed about ourselves and who we are," says Sandra Moore, Buick's marketing director. "So you always see a little bit of humor in a lot of our spots."

Ed Kim, AutoPacific's vice president of industry analysis, said the brand is wise to take a psychographic approach to its marketing instead of keying in on a specific age group.

"In the past, a lot of automakers would say, 'We want to appeal to young, 25-year-old men and have a very specific target layout.'" Kim said. "In the end, does it really matter? What really matters in the end is: Are you selling the vehicle? And are you selling it to the sort of mind-set that's consistent with where you want the brand to be?"

Cadillac's route

Buick's customer base skews older than those of most other brands. Approximately 25 percent of Buick's new-vehicle sales last year were to people 65 to 74 years old, according to IHS data, and nearly a fifth were 75 or older, the highest share in the industry. The average age of a Buick buyer was 60.3, the highest of all mainstream makes, and second only to Lincoln, which IHS classifies as a luxury brand.

Buick believes in the broad appeal of its current lineup, which competes in the industry's hottest segments and will soon include 4G LTE wireless Internet connectivity for tech lovers. But analysts say image makeovers are long-range undertakings that require patience.

"I don't think product is the issue for Buick," says Cars.com chief analyst Jesse Toprak. "If you look at the portfolio of Buick vehicles from price point to different segments from smaller vehicles to small SUVs down to large sedans, they've covered the spectrum of needs pretty well. It's a matter of telling consumers, 'We don't sell large boats anymore.'"

Kim says Buick can learn from Cadillac. By the 1990s, Kim said, Cadillac was an "old man's" brand that drew people looking to reward themselves upon retirement. But a push to edgier design at the turn of the century started a movement toward a more contemporary brand identity.

Buick's image transition, Kim says, began when it launched the 2008 Enclave crossover, whose buyers have typically averaged in the mid-50s, according to IHS. He said the sporty Regal GS, with a turbocharged engine generating 259 hp, is another step toward reforming the brand's image.

While perceptions may be slow to change, the brand's online exposure has soared, thanks to partnerships with popular content generators such as King. The 24-year-old filmmaker creates promotional videos for brands and has developed a wide following on the Vine video-sharing site as a master of magician-style special effects.

Rhett & Link's “Get Off the Phone Song” YouTube video lampoons the nation's cellphone-obsessed culture.

'Jumping on social media'

King says Buick was the first automaker to hire him to develop promos and came to him to boost its clout on Vine during the NCAA men's basketball tournament, for which Buick was a principal sponsor. He said some of the videos required as many as 150 takes. He spent several hours filming on each concept, shooting two videos a day for a little more than a week in March.

King's creations, which included such effects as him passing a basketball through the closed window of an Encore, drew thousands of shares, or "revines," as they are known on the site. Overall interaction with Buick's Vine account skyrocketed as some videos topped 20,000 revines. Before the King deal, Buick's high for a Vine video was 64 revines.

"It excites me as a content creator to see brands jumping on social media like this because it gives us a financial way to stay on and continue to make free content," King said.

Rhett & Link, who have 2 million YouTube subscribers, crafted the "Get Off the Phone Song" and video after the issue of technology-driven distractions bubbled up in Buick's marketing research of trending issues.

Moore said the Rhett & Link collaboration was a way for Buick to join a wider conversation, even if it wasn't an automotive theme.

The duo drove a Regal GS during the video, which has more than 2.6 million views since December.

"It's a little bit of the Wild West for everybody," Moore said of social media. "We're not sure where it's going to go, but we're going to be a part of it."

You can reach Vince Bond Jr. at vbond@crain.com -- Follow Vince on Twitter: @VinceBond86

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