Buick is so serious about golf that it named a brand manager for the sport. The affable Tony Derhake got the job in January. Though a lot of his colleagues tease him that he has the greatest job in the industry, he doesn't take the task frivolously.
'We're treating golf just like a brand,' he says. 'We want to take the image of Buick up another level through golf.'
Buick, arguably, is in an enviable position. Its name is almost synonymous with golf, the event many automotive marketers agree is the most well-rounded marketing tool. And dealers proclaim that golf drives a portion of Buick's sales.
'We're listening more to the dealers,' Derhake says. 'Before we were trying to sell golf to golfers; now we're trying to sell Buicks to golfers.'
Buick became the first corporate sponsor of the PGA Tour in 1958 when it launched the Buick Open, a tournament the division owns. It is the title sponsor of three other PGA Tour events and recently became the official sponsor of the World Golf Championships through 2002. All PGA Tour officials and volunteers drive Buicks, the official cars of the PGA Tour, even though another car company may be the title sponsor of the day. For example, when Mercedes hosts the opening PGA Tour event in Hawaii each January, Buick cars are there as well.
Steve Potter shrugs. 'That's the price you have to pay,' says the Mercedes-Benz sports marketing supervisor. 'Yeah, the Buick cars are there. But I want to be there, too, so I go along with it.'
Unlike sister division Cadillac, Buick spends heavily for its golf sponsorships. As the presenting sponsor on ESPN of 23 Senior PGA Tour events, Cadillac gets a tie-in but pays a fraction of the hefty cost of a title sponsorship, which runs a minimum of $4 million to $5 million.
Conservative estimates are that GM spends about $40 million to $60 million annually on golf sponsorships and related media buys, with Buick spending about two-thirds that amount. The rest is primarily spent by Cadillac and Oldsmobile.
'We spend a lot of money,' Derhake admits. 'Now we're trying to figure out how to get value out of it.'
It's his job not only to get value out of the sponsorships but also to keep competitors off Buick's turf.
Buick now takes as many as 200 cars to each of its events, arranges test drives at the golf outings and is working with dealers to gather better data about golf fans. The division puts a picture of a Buick on the hundreds of thousands of golfball sleeves it distributes. It also signed actress Cheryl Ladd as its golf ambassador and has endorsements with four pro players.
'It's a fact that at every PGA tournament, people see Buicks,' says pro golfer Ben Crenshaw, 'and a lot of these people buy Buicks.'
Among all brands, Buick remains among the 10 top U.S. sellers, the only top 10 seller without a truck. Though Buick's line has dipped to just four cars, its year-to-year sales increase of 17 percent through the end of July was the third-highest increase among the overall top 10 sellers.
Derhake, 55 and an avid golfer, spends about 20 percent of his time on golf; his other job is brand manager for the Buick Century.
Is he concerned that golf fans of the future will favor other makes and that the PGA Tour may be more inclined to do business with other automakers?
'We don't feel Buick is threatened at all,' he boasts. 'We are the major player, and we're acting like the major player in golf.'