I have a lot of fond memories of my grandmother’s Buick Skylark from the early 80s. It was bright red, with a bright red interior. I always thought the red interior resembled a soft couch, one I could actually picture my grandmother having in her living room.
She drove the wheels off that old Skylark, often commenting on how it always started during the cold Iowa winters. My Grandmother today is near 90, but she still drives frequently and can talk at length about every Buick she’s owned.
Herein resides the struggle for Buick, long enduring the stigma of “old person’s car,” a label unfairly given to them. It seems hypocritical to praise a manufacturer for being say, “young and modern,” yet chastise another for their customers who just happen to be older. Shouldn’t both be praised for catering to their respective demographics?
The double standard becomes more complicated when Buick is seen as lacking performance. I’ve heard knowledgeable people in the industry slam Buick for this, all to scratch their head when I bring up the classic Grand National. I am quick to mention how the modern day Regal GS creates 18 percent more power than the Audi A4 thanks to twin-scroll turbos.
Does this mean the Audi A4 is an old person’s car now?
Through September, global Buick deliveries worldwide totaled 1,046,746 vehicles for 2016. At no other point in the brand’s 113 years has this milestone been reached so quickly. Buick currently ranks as the second-largest passenger-car brand in China and outsells key competitors including Acura, Audi, Infiniti, and Lincoln in North America. In the United States, year-to-date retail sales are the highest in 11 years for Buick.
Furthermore, J.D. Power’s 2016 U.S. Sales Satisfaction Index (SSI) Study ranks Buick the highest among mass market brands.
So, what’s in the water at Buick? How did this Buick my dear, small town Grandma cherishes become a major player on the world stage?
“That is a story we love to tell because there is so much to it,” said Molly Peck, Buick Marketing Director. “There are not a lot of examples you can point to where a brand was fading from the minds of consumers and is now coming back.”
I’ve heard some say Buick was only spared the axe because of demand in China – I certinately would not disagree, but saying that’s the only reason is selling Buick awfully short. It’s also important to understand the distinction between Buick in the United States and Buick in China.
“Buick in China is not the same as it is in the U.S. because it has a very different product line, like a minivan,” explained Michelle Krebs, Senior Analyst for Autotrader. “The brand is more elastic in China, has a wider range of products in the portfolio, and a very different reputation there.”
As far as Buick was concerned in the United States, something needed to happen.
“Had they not started to reinvent themselves, Buick probably would have been irrelevant here in the U.S.,” Krebs said.
Buick’s turnaround hinges on three central themes that, when combined, illustrate the band’s significance, especially in our American culture. The first of these is what my grandmother still raves about: dependability and reliability. For over 30 years, in every type of weather imaginable in northwest Iowa, my grandmother trusted her Buick to get her to Gehlen Catholic School, where her 6th grade class awaited.
“When we talk about certain elements about Buick that have endured over the years, one of those is quality,” Peck said.
According to Peck, what has evolved are things like driving dynamics, where the ride and handling of today’s Buick is softer and more responsive. Technology, be it connectivity or safety related, has evolved in accordance with consumer demand too, but Peck continually underscores dependability as the primary constant.
“That is not something recent,” she said. “Buick and quality is not a new concept.”
Chinese consumers recognize this too, and one could argue Buick’s quality is responsible for the brand’s success there.
The second theme in Buick’s turnaround is a diversified product portfolio, delivered in a very precise fashion. Buick’s lineup for 2017 consists of four cars: Cascada, LaCrosse, Regal, Regal GS, and three crossovers/SUVs: Encore, Envision, and Enclave. The latter are increasingly important as demand for those types of vehicles is rising globally.
“I think consumers perceive the SUV as much more practical because you have cargo carrying capability and a lot of versatility,” Krebs said. “We also know baby boomers are aging and they prefer not to drop down into a car; older millennials are forming families and having children too, so an SUV is more versatile for the lifestyle of an active family.”
Earlier this year, Buick Encore recorded 30 straight months of year-over-year sales growth. More than half of Encore drivers arrive from other brands too, meaning Buick is changing the minds of owners previously loyal to another manufacturer.
“Since we have introduced Encore, the average age of our buyer has dropped four years,” Peck said.
Krebs believes the Encore challenged others to enter the small SUV segment.
“The Encore was one of the first subcompact SUVs, so they were at the game early on,” she said. “Now we are seeing a lot more products in that category.”
Cascada, Buick’s first convertible in the United States in 25 years, is also worth considering. Peck reveals Buick won’t challenge every competitor, but when they see an opportunity, they jump in.
“If you look at convertibles in the smaller segment, it’s pretty stable, and there is a really strong group of people who like a convertible,” she said. “We saw competitors actually leaving the segment and we thought it was perfect.”
Teamwork & Talent
The third element of Buick’s turnaround is the people behind the logo. Like any good team, it’s the players who often make things memorable and Buick is no exception. Their team consists of people with the brand for as little as three years, while others have logged over three decades at General Motors, but their common vision is a love for the principals Buick stands for.
“It is that diversity of thought and experiences that makes for a lot of creative energy,” Peck said. “Where you start to see the success is when your people deliver the approachable, friendly, and luxurious things the brand stands for.”
Although Buick has made strides and will continue, their work is far from over, and a complete transformation may even be decades away. Krebs recalls her time as a journalist when, in 1992, she reported on Cadillac’s turnaround.
“They are still trying to do it,” she said. “You have to have this relentless path of patience, constant reinvestment, and you have to constantly redesign your cars; you have to get the right buyers and products that eventually change the image of a brand, and that’s a long road.”
Another point of consideration is while Buick is capitalizing on the global SUV trend, not letting their sedans suffer in the process. Any slippage there would certainly hinder Buick’s turnaround.
“The overarching thing we have seen with consumers is a dramatic shift away from cars towards SUVs,” Krebs said. “Buick and others are riding that wave, much to the detriment of their car lines.”
While the J.D. Power 2016 U.S. Sales Satisfaction Index (SSI) Study is promising, other industry sources paint a different picture. For example, Kelley Blue Book and BrandWatch studies determined that while Buick ranked the best in terms of affordable luxury, they were last in exterior styling, technology, driving performance, and prestige.
Perhaps such contrasting results fuel the fire at Buick? Perhaps that is why they are so open and passionate about pursuing this reinvention, no matter how long the road is?
“We understand and we know what they are saying, but we are going to seek out those underserved areas in the market, be there for consumers, and keep surprising and delighting them on what Buick is,” Peck said. “Instead of telling people they don’t know what they are talking about, we simply invite them to come to see us now because we have an entirely new Buick.”
Carl Anthony is Managing Editor of Automoblog and resides in Detroit, Michigan.