Buick Using L.A. Auto Show to Shake Image as Car for Graybeards

  • GM division making first new-model debut there in five years
  • LaCrosse faces challenges dating back to `Annie Hall' spider

Buick is trying to go from Geezerville to Tinseltown.

When the classic General Motors Co. brand takes the wraps off its new LaCrosse sedan at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday, it will be its first new-model debut there in five years. The hope is that the LaCrosse will turn heads. The car’s bold styling is based on the Avenir, which in January was named “best concept vehicle” at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Showcasing the LaCrosse in a hip urban setting like L.A. is in keeping with the division’s “That’s a Buick?” ad campaign, which makes a self-deprecating case that its newer cars are too cool for its geriatric reputation. The average Buick buyer is 66 years old, according to San Diego-based consulting firm Strategic Vision Inc. By contrast, BMW’s average buyer is 50 and Lexus, also known for comfort like Buick, has an average owner age of 59.

“The issue has not been our products,” said Tony DiSalle, vice president of Buick and GMC marketing for GM. “It’s a perception that Buick is for older people. We have a lot of upside here.”

Family Resemblance

The LaCrosse has the same grille and shares a family resemblance with the Avenir, Buick Vice President Duncan Aldred said in September. The Avenir “shattered expectations of what a Buick could be,” Aldred said, promising that the LaCrosse would do the same.

But wooing California buyers won’t be easy in a state where foreign luxury cars are status symbols, American brands struggle and Buick has market share of less than 0.5 percent. Buick’s challenges in the Golden State are even stiffer than those it faces in the rest of the U.S. The brand has only a 1.3 percent market share in the U.S. but 4 percent in China, the world’s largest auto market, where 80 percent of Buicks are sold.

In the U.S., the biggest battle will be to change perceptions. Even though Buick makes crossover SUVs and nimble sedans like the Regal, it has conventional wisdom and pop culture to overcome. In the 1977 movie “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen famously says the spider in the bathroom is “the size of a Buick.”

“Buick stands for comfort and is known by older generations,” said Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision. “If they want to attract people from more lively brands, they need to talk to a different kind of buyer.”

Stop Apologizing

Edwards isn’t enamored of Buick’s marketing strategy. In one ad for the Regal, the buyer’s grandmother looks incredulously at the car and says, “I thought you bought a Buick.” Her grandson replies, “This is a Buick, grandma.” To make headway with new buyers, Buick’s advertising at some point will have to start telling people more clearly what the brand is and stop apologizing for what it was, Edwards said.

“To people who don’t know Buick, that doesn’t say why they should love their cars,” he said.

Buick will also start selling the Cascada convertible early next year, hoping buyers in warm-weather states like California and Florida will take notice. A new mid-sized SUV called the Envision will come from China next year, said Mike Jackson, an analyst with IHS Automotive. That’s the hottest part of the U.S. market and could help the division, Jackson said.

China Model

If Chinese consumers are any indication, Buick’s LaCrosse plan can succeed. The model is the division’s best-selling sedan in China, with almost 84,000 sold through October. In the U.S, Buick sold 35,526 of the LaCrosse though October, according to Autodata Inc.

In L.A., Buick will have some tough competition for eyeballs. Jaguar is showing its first-ever sport utility vehicle, the F-Pace, and BMW will display the M4 GTS sports car. Mercedes-Benz has its very tony new SL Roadster. The LaCrosse will also vie with GM’s own Cadillac XT5 sport-utility vehicle, which will replace the SRX, and the Lincoln MKZ sedan.

Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln and Buick have a long way to go, but the L.A. show isn’t a bad start, said Eric Noble, president of The CarLab, an automotive consulting firm in Orange, California.

“Lincoln has lousy market share here, too, but they are always doing stuff in California,” Noble said. “So it’s a long-term investment. Buick’s cars have been quietly getting much better, and they should be showing stuff here.”

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