Editorial: This Is Not Your Father's Buick

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
editorial this is not your father s buick

The entire autoblogosphere is abuzz over the new Buick LaCrosse. And not just in the pre-show preview, “check this out” kind of way. Or even in the sniggering “guess what the name means in Quebec” way. No, full-service pimping of GM’s latest mid-sized sedan is clearly the order of the day. And a single thread runs through all the breathless commentary, namely the alleged youthful, modern appeal of the new LaCrosse. The message is loud and clear: this is not your father’s Buick. Or, as The DetNews‘s Scott Burgess puts it (in hopes of avoiding the painful Olds legacy), “this is not your grandfather’s Buick.” The Freep opens its paean to the LaCrosse by pointing out that it was designed by “twenty- and thirty-somethings.” “No More Blue Hair!” screams the headline at Jalopnik, who also parrot the “not your grandfather’s Buick” line. But, like the infamous “not your father’s Oldsmobile” ads everyone keeps referencing, all this sound and fury merely cements long-standing brand perceptions in the minds of consumers. And hastens the long-overdue death of Buick

GM’s Susan Docherty reveals to Automotive News [sub] that Buick’s youthful reinvention is not being kicked off by LaCrosse. “With the introduction of the Enclave, we have broken through the perception that Buick was just a brand for old people,” says the Pontiac Buick GMC VP. “The Enclave started a transformation of the brand that has only just begun.”

Oh really? So the DetN’s Burgess wasn’t kidding. This really is about repositioning Buick as “your father’s” brand instead of “your grandfather’s.” And with an average buyer age of 63, that may not be a bad goal. But if Enclave buyers were still well into their 50s, how far are these claims of youthful reinvention really going to carry the Buick brand?

Not far. Not only will this LaCrosse fail to appreciably bring down the average Buick customer age (for reasons explored later), the entire marketing effort sends the clear message that its core buyers are an embarrassment to the brand.

As does the car itself, which is loaded with techno-gizmos and has optional all-wheel drive. Why? To tempt the youthful hordes from their “near-luxury” Toyota Avalons, Acuras TLs and the like. And further convince their core market that Buick’s are no longer senior-friendly havens of low-tech in a world gone mad.

Compared to the last few decades of Buicks, the design is understated and elegant. But that’s like bragging about attracting 50-year-old customers instead of 60-year-olds. From some angles the new car looks suitably Lexus-like, echoing the current LS at the rear and first-generation GS from the side. From the front its splashy waterfall grille is subtle in comparison only to Mercury’s chrome-bauble bling.

From the vantage point of online press pictures, the interior does look undeniably decent. Unfortunately, it also does away with the sense of spaciousness and simplicity that defined Buick’s appeal even when its styling and performance was at its worst.

Even if the new LaCrosse is the best Buick made in years (and it probably is), it does nothing to rescue the brand. The relentless emphasis on customer age in marketing and media coverage shows deep insecurity on GM’s part about Buick’s appeal.

Buick is one of the most traditional symbols of middle class achievement, an image that over the last few decades has appealed to fewer, older customers. That image has been successful in China, where a young emerging middle class hold many of the values that once made Buick a success here.

As a well-qualified youngster in the car-buying demographic I feel confident in arguing that America’s aspiring 20 and 30-somethings are generally striving for individuality and expression, not suburban comfort, conformity and subtlety.

As a brand as steeped in tradition, Buick needs to reinvent itself in a way that builds on its past and broadens its appeal without alienating long-term fans. Something along the lines of Canadian Club’s “damn right your dad drank it,” campaign. When brands outlive their historical moment, only some sense of irony or humor can keep their core values relevant. If trying to keep Buick relevant even makes any sense at this point. Which it probably doesn’t.

GM has had a hard enough time updating Cadillac’s staid image in a way that doesn’t completely alienate traditionalists. Attempting this balance with Buick does little besides create the brand engineering and cannibalism that destroyed both brands in the first place.

Me? I actually want one of my father’s favorite Buicks, the 1963 Riviera. Which was actually marketed to people like his father. In terms of recapturing the immediate yet timeless appeal of Buick’s heyday models, the new LaCrosse comes up well short.

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2 of 161 comments
  • 63CorvairSpyder 63CorvairSpyder on Jan 10, 2009

    @John Horner: I was just goofing with "ted ward", his Mom sounds like a cool lady.... Plus, if my wife catches me flirting with other girls she won't let me drive her car.

  • Durask Durask on Jan 11, 2009

    Screw marketing, positioning, etc. Build a GOOD car, then customers of all ages will buy it. You see all kinds of people in a Honda Accord - 20s to 70s. I'm in my early 30s and will be getting an AWD sedan for my next drive, so I will test drive this car. If it impresses me and the price is good, I will buy it.

  • Ollicat I have a Spyder. The belt will last for many years or 60,000-80,000 miles. Not really a worry.
  • Redapple2 Cadillac and racing. Boy those 2 go together dont they? What a joke. Up there with opening a coffee shop in NYC. EvilGM be clowning. Again.
  • Jbltg Rear bench seat does not match the front buckets. What's up?
  • Theflyersfan The two Louisville truck plants are still operating, but not sure for how much longer. I have a couple of friends who work at a manufacturing company in town that makes cooling systems for the trucks built here. And they are on pins and needles wondering if or when they get the call to not go back to work because there are no trucks being made. That's what drives me up the wall with these strikes. The auto workers still get a minimum amount of pay even while striking, but the massive support staff that builds components, staffs temp workers, runs the logistics, etc, ends up with nothing except the bare hope that the state's crippled unemployment system can help them keep afloat. In a city where shipping (UPS central hub and they almost went on strike on August 1) and heavy manufacturing (GE Appliance Park and the Ford plants) keeps tens of thousands of people employed, plus the support companies, any prolonged shutdown is a total disaster for the city as well. UAW members - you're not getting a 38% raise right away. That just doesn't happen. Start a little lower and end this. And then you can fight the good fight against the corner office staff who make millions for being in meetings all day.
  • Dusterdude The "fire them all" is looking a little less unreasonable the longer the union sticks to the totally ridiculous demands ( or maybe the members should fire theit leadership ! )