Buick young designers crafting future
Inside Buick design studios at General Motors Co.'s Warren Tech Center, there's a new energy and buzz from young car designers. They are working to push the brand — once associated mainly with the gray-haired crowd — to the next level.
Meet Rebecca Waldmeir, Aaron Stich and John McDougall, 20- and 30-something designers who are are among the group working to create the future vision of Buick. That includes attracting a younger clientele.
"Buick's been going through these kind of transformative stages from... something that only my grandma would drive, to something that is a very good vehicle that's attracting a lot of new people," said McDougall, a 28-year-old Buick interior creative designer originally from North Dakota. "We're being tasked to look at what's the next step of that evolution. So how can we take Buick even further and how can we make it a brand that we want to associate with and is really the best in the world?
Buick, with help from the catchy "Experience the New Buick" and "That's A Buick" advertisements and newer vehicles, is growing interest and sales. It's attracting younger and new buyers. The average age of a Buick customer has fallen from 62 in 2009 to 59 the past two years; 42 percent of U.S. Buick buyers last year were new to the brand and GM.
At the North American International Auto Show this year, Buick revealed a new 2016 Cascada convertible and a surprise, head-turning concept car, the Avenir. Buick has a newly designed exhibit space at the auto show, in a new location near luxury competitors.
Waldmeir, 32, is design manager in Buick's color and trim studio. She helps select interior finishes, chooses and designs finishes on wheels, and figures out what exterior paint colors will be the next big thing. Simply put: She and her team can't follow trends. They have to try to create them.
She worked on the award-winning Avenir concept, which has a fresh grille and crest, with colleagues from GM Design's studio in Australia. She said the work represents a "beautiful new modern direction for the Buick brand."
"There's this kind of new life to Buick," Waldmeir said. "So there's a lot of expectations within the designers to influence where the brand is going and the future of the brand."
Buick sales up
Brand sales are growing, up 13.4 percent globally in 2014. Nearly 1.2 million Buicks were sold, a record. Buick's largest market is China, where sales jumped 13.5 percent to more than 919,000 last year. U.S. sales rose 11.4 percent to 228,963.
Buick's U.S. portfolio today has five models: the Verano, LaCrosse and Regal sedans; the small Encore SUV; and the large Enclave SUV. It will add the 2016 Cascada convertible early next year.
Karl Brauer, senior director of insights at Kelley Blue Book, said the brand has been boosted by the entry of the subcompact Encore that it launched in early 2013. Encore sales soared 53 percent last year to nearly 49,000.
"The Encore was really the home run for them. They built a vehicle for a category that was so hot, was in such demand," he said. "It's gone really well for them in terms of volume and it pulls in a lot of non-traditional Buick buyers. They really have to just keep doing that. They have to find segments that they aren't already in, where there is demand."
Stich, 27, a Buick interior designer who grew up in Texas, said there's "necessity in the brand to change," and GM leadership is looking to its younger designers to offer a "new approach, a new perspective."
He said the design studio looks for inspiration from socially responsible, premium and luxurious brands. Both Stich and McDougall submitted sketches for the Avenir, but ultimately a different designer's sketch was chosen for the interior theme.
'At the nexus'
McDougall, said he sees a huge leap coming for Buick in the next 15 years. He said that excitement is attracting younger designers to the team.
"A lot of work needs to be done for different aesthetics, different vehicles altogether, different ways to buy your car," he said. "There's no filter right now on what the future of Buick could be."
But the three say that the future of Buick will involve qualities such as being beautiful, timelessness, ageless, technologically intelligent and environmentally sustainable.
"If we design that, then somebody that's 25 to 85 and shares those values will be attracted to the product," McDougall said.
McDougall said they give input to Bregt Ectors, a Buick strategic design manager. He and Stich have presented ideas for the brand to the heads of Buick marketing. Ectors joined Buick design in 2013 and is a liaison from design to Buick marketing.
"When we're doing this kind of advanced vision stuff, we're meeting with him weekly and looking at future portfolio entries that are already confirmed, kind of brainstorming on what are some areas where maybe in five years there is some white space for us to create an entry for a vehicle," McDougall said.
Ectors works to create discussions with designers on how to evolve the brand, said Elizabeth Wetzel, director of design for Buick interiors since mid-2013. He also works with marketing and GM planning departments, Wetzel said.
"With marketing, we've really aligned with where we want the brand to go," said Holt Ware, design director for Buick exteriors. He started in his current position in 2013, coming from a design director post for GM in China, which also had young talent.
Waldmeir, Stich and McDougall said they enjoy the amount of freedom they are given in the Buick studios and the influence they have.
"We're at the nexus, we're at the launch of something that's going to be amazing," Stich said.