Brand-building can be tough work, especially if you're a century-old marque like Buick. And after a few years of strong sales increases based on new products, General Motors is finding that sales of its overhauled Buick brand are slowing — just as the rest of the car market is rising.
Buick sales overall were down by 16 percent through April compared with a year earlier, and have dropped year-to-year for seven straight months, matching Cadillac for the longest losing streak among the 41 brands sold in the U.S. Before then, Buick had posted 24 months of sales gains, one of the industry's longest runs, and notched a 14-percent increase for all of 2011.
The brand's drought seems to be part by GM's design, partly a disturbing drop-off in consumer appreciation. GM has been deliberately repositioning Buick as a true luxury brand, trying to move it upscale as well as seek younger buyers. Its most recent few new nameplates greatly aided that cause — sharp cars such as Regal and the latest, the compact Verano sedan, as well as the Enclave crossover (promoted in new spots featuring bikini model Marisa Miller and actor Ving Rhames). Buick also has a sleek new small crossover, Encore, slated for debut early next year.
Trouble is, repositioning Buick has been about more than just finally having the sheetmetal chops to do it. GM also has had to drastically curtail fleet sales; they were once a big prop under the brand's monthly numbers, but they deteriorate important other numbers such as resale value. So Buick's fleet sales through April were only 7 percent, less than half the percentage of five years ago.
GM also has had to scaleback brand-eroding consumer incentives as part of its move upscale. Meanwhile, Buick has been trying to goose lease penetration because leases account for about half of sales for some competing luxury brands.
Buick sells four times more vehicles in China than in the U.S. right now. Are the brand's relatively sudden woes in its home market these days just a lull, more an indicator of an important phase of GM's rebranding than an indicator of its long-term failure? Or is long-term decline for Buick in the cards again?
"We 're taking a very disciplined approach to the Buick brand," Brian Sweeney, VP of sales for Buick, told Automotive News. "We're building a good house, a good foundation."