DETROIT -- Call it the Fiesta Movement for grown-ups.
To help launch the 2011 Regal sedan, Buick will host a social media Web site with videos from buyers supplied with flip cameras, just like Ford's campaign for the youth-oriented Fiesta small car.
But the Regal site will feature reviews, not the playful commercials and local coming-out parties that characterize the Fiesta Movement. Buick will post all articles written about the Regal, even if they're unflattering, and visitors can post any comments they want, Buick's top marketer says.
The site, called "Buick's Moment of Truth," is part of the brand's efforts to remake its image -- tarnished in some parts of the United States and nonexistent in others because of years of unappealing products and shrinking sales. Buick marketers' willingness to post bad press shows the brand is ready to take unusual risks to rebuild credibility.
When Buick tested marketing plans for the Regal, the candor behind "Moment of Truth" impressed consumers, says John Schwegman, U.S. marketing chief for Buick-GMC.
"It came across as a very positive thing to be that open and that transparent in an age that people are mad at bailouts, people are mad at big corporate America," Schwegman says.
Buick will retain negative comments that visitors leave online, he says. That has been done before. For instance, the Fiesta Facebook site contains several negative comments about delivery delays of the new small car.
But if Buick's marketers follow through and post unflattering press about the Regal on the site, they expand automakers' use of social media, says Jon Schulz, senior vice president and head of global automotive at Specific Media in Irvine, Calif.
"I know the automakers want to get involved in this, but the moment it gets negative, [they say] the risks kind of outweigh the benefits," says Schulz, who was head of digital marketing at Ford Motor Co. when he left in 2008. "They're willing to take some more chances here because it's not necessarily a strong market for the Buick brand."
Buick's 89 percent decline in annual sales since its peak in 1984 has left many Americans clueless about the brand's product lineup. When Buick tested Regal ads on consumers from Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, the toughest crowd was in Chicago, Schwegman says.
The reason? Buick had sold relatively well in the Midwest, so those buyers had seen old Buicks on the street and therefore had more negative impressions, he says.
In contrast, West Coast consumers said, " 'I don't have a perception other than I think they're pretty good in quality,' " says Schwegman, referring to Buick's No. 1 ranking in J.D. Power and Associates' Vehicle Dependability Study in 2009 and its third-place finish this year. " 'I don't know if they've built a vehicle for me, so tell me more.' "
Buick plans to launch marketing for the Regal in early July, followed by the "Moment of Truth" site later in the month.
Ads will emphasize interior and exterior photography and pricing since people need to see what a Buick looks like and costs these days, Schwegman says.
"Some of them say, 'This car is probably $35,000 or more,' " he says. "It's not that we want to talk about price and deal, but [they're saying] 'I need that frame of reference.' "
The Regal, a lightly reworked version of the Opel Insignia, is aimed at buyers 35 to 40 who value a sporty ride, perhaps as an alternative to their family vehicle.
The 2011 Regal, which went on sale last month, comes only in the CXL premium trim level and starts at $26,995, including the delivery charge. The company has said the base 2012 Regal will have a lower price and fewer standard features.