The marketing move behind Buick's big year

The ads are working, more are on the way

Buick this week will roll out the second phase of the advertising campaign it launched in March featuring people who have trouble recognizing Buick models. The brand says Nielsen rates the advertising Buick's most effective in years.
GM's standout performer
Year-on-year sales change, Jan.-July

DETROIT -- The way Buick-GMC chief Duncan Aldred sees it, something must be going right if a crack marketing machine like Coca-Cola is looking at Buick for inspiration.

Coke -- also in need of an image overhaul -- could use a blunt message like "Sure doesn't look like a Buick!" Coca-Cola's North America president, Sandy Douglas, recently told Bloomberg Businessweek.

General Motors "is completely relaunching Buick right now," the Coke exec said.

An overstatement, perhaps. But Aldred believes that the campaign that's been running since March just might be starting to do something that a lineup of handsome sheet metal could not: transform Buick's old-fogey image.

Aldred is doubling down with the release this week of several more spots, each featuring people who can't wrap their heads around the fact that they're looking at a Buick.

Watch the commercials

Aldred: Sticking with the plan

"We're attacking head-on the false familiarity of Buick being an old person's brand," Aldred told Automotive News last week, adding that Nielsen measurements rate the current commercial as Buick's highest-rated spot in many years.

Like the campaign or not, something has been working for Buick lately. Its sales rose 12 percent through July vs. 5 percent for the industry, the best performance among GM's four brands. The growth has come without the help of any major launches. A re-engineered 2014 Regal sedan was the most significant recent entry.

Buick's revitalized showroom is attracting more non-GM customers. The brand's conquest rate was 32 percent in the second quarter, up from 22 percent in 2009, IHS Automotive data show. A big reason for that is hot demand for the Encore small crossover, with a sales surge of 80 percent this year through July.

Globally, Buick in 2013 hit a record 1 million vehicles sold, with China accounting for more than three-quarters of that volume. Aldred's job is to get the U.S. to carry more of the load. He's been wryly reminding sales staffers that, so far this year, Buick's sales growth in the U.S. has outpaced that in China.

Fresh product could help extend that streak. Sources say a U.S. version of the Envision midsize cross-over, unveiled in China last week, should arrive by late 2015, followed by a Buick-badged Opel Cascada convertible in early 2016.

"The lineup is moving in the right direction," said IHS Automotive analyst Tom Libby. "The next step is for Buick to more clearly define its position and target market. Is there a big enough market of people who want something more upscale than a Chevy but can't afford or don't want a Cadillac?"

Libby points to IHS data showing that Buick is not attracting owners of brands that Buick execs say are its near-luxury peers, such as Acura and Infiniti. In the second quarter, most Buick newcomers came from Chevrolet (17 percent), followed by GMC (9 percent), Ford (5 percent), Toyota (4 percent) and Honda and Cadillac (3 percent each).

Those figures don't surprise David Ferraez, CEO of Green Brook Buick-GMC in Green Brook, N.J., one of the highest volume Buick dealers in the Northeast.

Despite what he calls a good lineup, Ferraez says the brand still doesn't appeal to import-minded buyers, who are prevalent in his market.

"My challenge as a Buick-GMC dealer is how do I get the Audi or Acura or Infiniti owner to take a look?" Ferraez said. "Buick still isn't on their radar. We need something to get us there."

That's Aldred's mission. The 44-year-old Brit, who took over Buick-GMC in January after running GM's Vauxhall brand in the U.K., has a mantra of consistency, something that many dealers and branding experts say has been lacking at Buick.

The five new 30-second commercials arrive in time for college football season. (Buick is an NCAA sponsor.) Created by lead ad agency Leo Burnett, the spots continue the theme of people failing to recognize that sleek new vehicle under their nose as a Buick.

In one, a roomful of 20- and 30-somethings blow a surprise party because they didn't realize that the birthday girl had already parked her Verano out front, even though they had been on the lookout for a Buick.

"That's not a Buick," one partygoer murmurs. Another asks: "What kind is it?" The voiceover then calls the Verano "one of five expectation-shattering models from Buick."

Aldred says to expect more such overt messages.

"The key is really sticking with it and saying 'Hey, we've found something great here,'" he said. "Let's not be too quick to invent the next big thing."

GM's standout performer
Year-on-year sales change, Jan.-July
You can reach Mike Colias at



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