Buick is eager to fend off its image as a dull carmaker for aging customers.
For years, Buick had been successful selling hundreds of thousands of cars to a mature, conservative group.
But sales are down substantially: 22 percent from 1994 to 1996.
One reason: Many customers are flocking to trucks.
And 50-year-old baby boomers are far different from their 50-year-old predecessors, Buick's prime customers of the past.
'We assumed that (our customers') tastes reflected their demographics and overlooked something fundamental,' said Karen Ebbens, marketing services director for Buick. 'Car buying isn't just about age; it's also about attitude.'
Buick says it is ready to show some spunk.
The division is developing an ad campaign for the fall to promote the Buick make. Current campaigns showcase the individual car lines. The umbrella campaign hopes to cut through the truck clutter and show that 'big, powerful cars' also have a place on the road.
The division is pushing for more capacity at the Oshawa, Ontario, plant for its Century model. The Century, a new model for 1997, is Buick's second best-selling nameplate, trailing the LeSabre, but its demographics are younger. About 33 percent of Century lessees and 20 percent of the buyers are under age 50.
Buick General Manager Bob Coletta said he believes the LeSabre and the Century can each sell up to 130,000 to 150,000 units annually. 'There's no doubt in my mind that Century can push LeSabre for the volume car,' Coletta said. Buick dealers sold 131,316 LeSabres last year and 72,433 Centurys.
The Regal is aimed at a younger and livelier group than the Century. Buick cut a deal to make the Regal the official car of the Women's National Basketball Association to boost its appeal to younger buyers. Ebbens said about 40 percent of Regal buyers are under 50, and half of the lessees fall in that age group.
A third of the Riviera's customers are under 50, and there has also been a 60 percent rise in the number of customers under 50 who are buying the Park Avenue Ultra.
'Now is a good time for an umbrella campaign, since most of the Buick models are new,' said Lincoln Merrihew, analyst with J.D. Power and Associates, an automotive consulting firm. 'Umbrella campaigns help to build a feeling beyond the vehicle itself. So you're not just proud to own a LeSabre, but a Buick. It helps to build brand loyalty.'
It won't be easy. Buick only sells cars, a segment that is dwindling. In 1990, trucks made up 33 percent of total vehicle sales in this country. That percentage jumped to 40 percent in 1994, when Buick sold 546,836 cars, its highest total in this decade. Truck sales made up 43.7 percent of the entire market last year and represented 44.6 percent of total vehicle sales for the first six months of this year.
Even though Buick is the No. 8 car seller in this country and the 11th top vehicle seller overall, sales continue to fall. The division's sales were down 8.9 percent through June 30; only six other makes fared worse.
'Our dealers would really like a truck,' Coletta said. 'Something between a truck and a car makes a lot of sense.'
Suppliers say Buick is due to get an upscale minivan for the 2002 model year. One supplier said the company has tentatively scheduled production of about 47,000 units.
But 2002 is a long time away. And LeSabre and Park Avenue are the only two Buick car lines with sales increases so far this year. 'I'm not suggesting that Buick's marketing has arrived somewhere,' Ebbens said. 'What Buick wants to do is bring back those customers who are in their prime buying years but who are different than the 50-year-old 10 years ago.'