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Buick

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Buick is a legendary American car brand, one of a handful of survivors from the portfolio of General Motors. Long perceived as the car of choice for well-heeled suburban professionals, the brand notched up its centenary in 2003. But a sharp decline in sales gave GM little to celebrate for most of that decade. Buick had attempted to reposition itself to attract a younger audience, completely overhauling its product range to include light trucks and SUVs. Unfortunately that move came too late, just as US buyer preferences moved away from gas guzzlers towards fuel efficient small cars. The fact that Buick survived GM's Chapter 11 cull in 2009 was mainly the result of its strong following in China, where more than 80% of its sales are made. Yet, the brand also emerged as one of the surprise winners in the post-recessionary US market, with sales growing at a faster rate than any other automobile brand.

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Analysis

Despite an extensive makeover in 2004, Buick's sales continued to decline steeply over the following four years, causing understandable alarm at GM. Although it survived GM's 2009 restructuring as one of the four brands being retained by the group, that fact was largely the result of its unexpected popularity in China, where it is one of GM's most successful marques. Its popularity appeared to spread to the US during 2010 as sales rose at a faster rate than any other car brand.

Historically, Buick is best known for stylish but affordable family cars. Traditionally it has always been perceived as the halfway point between mass-market Chevrolet and luxury model Cadillac, but its traditional audience is ageing fast - by the mid 2000s the typical buyer was in his 70s - and GM tried several times to reposition the brand, recasting Buick as a manufacturer of entry-level luxury light trucks and SUVs. The shift was necessary. As the oldest brand in the stable, Buick was in distinct danger of being seen as yesterday's car, a fate which had already irretrievably dented sister brand the Oldsmobile, leading to its suspension.

Following GM's emergence from Chapter 11 in 2009, the group launched a new strategy designed to position Buick in the US as a rival to Toyota's Lexus marque, offering a "soft and luxurious driving experience". That strategy got a considerable lift in early 2010 from Toyota's disastrous quality control problems. Buick seized the opportunity to present itself as the brand which offers "premium vehicles without the premium price".

That recovery in the US came as a considerable relief after a decade of steep decline, in which sales plunged from more than 400,000 units as recently as 2002 to a low of just over 100,000 in 2009. Buick's problems seemed to kick off in 2003 when the brand suffered a 22% decline in sales, the biggest fall by any of the group's brands that year. A new tag line "Dream Up" was introduced in late 2004, replacing the previous "The Spirit of American Style", which seemed to place too heavy an emphasis on Buick's heritage. There was also a shake-up of the model range. The old Regal model was dropped in 2004, and the fast-fading Century, Park Avenue and LeSabre were marked for a gradual phase-out. Instead the group introduced a range of three light trucks: the Rainier midsize SUV, Rendezvous compact SUV, and a new sports van, the Terraza. These were matched by two premium sedans, the new LaCrosse midsize sedan, and the luxury Lucerne, launched in late 2005.

Yet Buick's shift towards upscale trucks and SUVs coincided with a determined move by US buyers away from that market. As a result, the brand's sales fell again during 2005. Responding to the new crisis - the brand was described at the time by group vice chairman Bob Lutz as "damaged" - GM unveiled a new marketing strategy which suggested a further change of positioning for Buick. Plans to extend the model range with several additional SUVs and light trucks were revised to avoid overlapping models. Instead, Buick was more closely aligned with sister brand Pontiac.

The Buick model range was reduced further in 2008, with a stylish new high-end SUV, the Enclave, replacing the short-lived Rendezvous, Rainier and Terraza. In the short-term, however, there further blood was spilt as sales continued to fall. In 2006, unit sales fell by almost 15%, followed by an even bigger decline in 2007 of almost 23% to 185,791 units. Despite strong reviews, the Enclave came too late to deliver substantial sales during the year, with its debut failing to offset a sharp decline by the Rendezvous and Rainier models. A restyled LaCrosse was unveiled in 2009, designed to build upon the Enclave's popularity with a younger demographic, which in Buick's terms means aged 40-plus rather than 60-plus.

However the bloodbath in the general auto industry during that year resulted in a further 25% slide in Buick sales to an all-time low of 102,306 vehicles. By early 2010, the portfolio was reduced to just three models: the top-of-the-range Enclave, LaCrosse and Lucerne. A new sports sedan, the Regal, was introduced in Spring 2010 to replace the Lucerne, its design based heavily on the Insignia model launched in Europe by sister brand Opel. That year saw a spectacular recovery in sales, as volumes jumped by more than 50% to over 155,000 vehicles. An entry-level compact sedan, the Verano, launched at the very end of 2011, and was joined by the Encore subcompact crossover SUV in 2013. By 2014, there were just five models in the portfolio, led by the Enclave, LaCrosse and Verano. Two new models were added for 2016, the convertible Cascada - launched with Buick's first-ever Super Bowl spot - and Envision compact crossover.

Yet while the Buick brand struggled in North America, it proved an unexpected success in one of the world's fastest-growing markets: China. That brand was selected by GM's partner SAIC to be its lead product in China, and the joint venture now produces a range of seven Buick models, including sedans, hatchbacks, a small car and an SUV. Buick China's sales overtook those in the US in 2006, and have continued to climb ever since, topping 1.2m vehicles in 2016. The brand's best-selling model in China is the Excelle family sedan, accounting for almost 40% of unit sales.

Total global sales for 2016 rose by a spectacular 16% to a record 1,432,679 vehicles. The bulk of those sales were in China. In the US, sales peaked in 2012 at almost 230k units. Since then, sales have been slightly mercurial, falling back over the next few years before reaching a new high of 229,631 vehicles in 2016. The Encore was the top seller at almost 79k units, followed by the Enclave (52k) and Verano (30k).

Buick has long been associated with golf and sponsors several events including the PGA Tour and the Buick Scramble, which was the world's largest pro-am golf tournament during the early 2000s. However these links have been steadily cut back since 2008, following the termination of an eight-year endorsement partnership with Tiger Woods.

Background

Buick was in fact the foundation stone for what is now General Motors. It was the first car manufacturer acquired by William Durant, who went on to add on a string of other marques between 1908 and 1918 under the eventual umbrella name of General Motors. Scottish-born inventor David Dunbar Buick dabbled in a number of schemes in the closing years of the 19th century. His most successful invention was a process to bond enamel to cast-iron appliances, subsequently used in virtually every bathroom and kitchen appliance. But Buick sold the rights to his partner William Sherwood (who became a multi-millionaire as a result) and set up a new company to develop gasoline-powered engines. In 1903, he set out to build his first motor car and sold control of the business to backers in order to raise funding. William Durant ran a company which made horse-drawn carriages. Enraptured by the new technology of horseless automobiles, he acquired control of the company in 1904 and masterminded the launch of the Buick brand. Two years later Buick himself left the business, selling his stock to Durant for $100,000. (He died in 1929, virtually penniless after squandering his nest-egg on a series of other unsuccessful ventures. His family crest was adopted as the brand logo in 1937).

Meanwhile Durant made a real success of the fast-growing business. By 1908, Buick was selling around 8,000 cars a year. Durant attempted to merge the business with Ford, but when talks failed he persuaded his bankers to lend him the cash to buy up a string of other small companies. While he travelled the country snapping up other companies, he left the business in the hands of manager Walter P Chrysler (who eventually left in 1920 to start his own company). Mass-market Chevrolet later joined the GM stable, but Buick became established as the company's mid-level model, a little more luxurious and expensive than the Chevy, but not quite at Cadillac's level.

The brand was enormously successful during the 1920s, selling over 200,000 vehicles a year by the end of the decade. Designer Harley Earl established a distinctly modern look for the brand and ad agency Campbell-Ewald was employed to sell Buick's stylish designs to the public. But the boom didn't last. The Depression decimated Buick's sales, and the marque struggled through the early 1930s. Its fortunes recovered towards the end of the decade before its production facilities were converted to build engines during World War II. Buick celebrated a new era of success in the post-war boom, widely admired for Earl's highly stylized designs, which offered exaggerated tail fins, sleek streamlining and slanted headlights. Clever advertising from new agency Arthur Kudner promised "When better automobiles are built Buick will build them", and by 1954 Buick was America's third best-selling car. Once again the boom ended with bewildering speed. Faced with fierce competition from cheaper cars, Buick's sales slumped from 780,000 cars in 1955 to 235,000 just four years later.

McCann-Erickson was hired to take on Buick's advertising in 1958, introducing the slogan "Wouldn't you really rather have a Buick?". The brand began its long-running association with golf the same year, sponsoring the first Buick Open. Sales continued to see-saw over the following years, climbing to more than 825,000 by 1973, before collapsing again in the face of the oil crisis. Sales increased again during the boom years of the 1980s, peaking in 1984 at almost 942,000 cars. But increasingly the brand was associated with an older generation, and in the 1990s Buick went looking for a younger audience again. It found a new figurehead in golfer Tiger Woods, who signed a $15m contract to endorse the brand through 2000 and 2001. The contract was extended to cover Buick's first steps into the light trucks sector in 2002, with the launch of the Rendezvous, and again in 2004 before finally coming to an end in 2008.

Last full revision 16th February 2016

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