Buick reboots brand with a shift toward SUVs

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Buick made the list of Top 10 brands in the Consumer Reports 2017 Annual Top Picks list. It’s second only to Porsche in J.D. Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study. And it was the only General Motors brand to gain sales last year, up 2.9 percent.

The Buick Encore is one of the best-selling subcompact crossovers.

To paraphrase the brand’s popular TV ads: That’s Buick?

Saved in GM’s 2009 bankruptcy largely for its strong presence in China, Buick has justified GM’s decision by becoming America’s comeback kid. With a consistent message, dependable products and crossovers perfectly timed to slake America’s thirst for all things sport-utility, the 118-year-old brand is shedding its stodgy, sedan image.

“We know from research that when people find out we make SUVs, they think we are a modern, contemporary brand,” says Buick Marketing and Advertising Director Molly Peck. She the brand’s first female marketing chief and a key player in its resurgence.

“We have a full SUV lineup. It started with Enclave in 2008,” she says, referring to Buick’s mid-size SUV. “It really wowed people. It filled the need for a beautiful vehicle that also had cargo capability — so it was a good alternative to the big SUVs on the road. Second, we introduced Encore, and got a lot of people to consider Buick. Now we love what the Envision brings to the brand.”

Molly Peck

The cute Encore continues to roll out of showroom as not only the best-selling premium small SUV — but one of the best-selling subcompact crossovers, period. The Envision debuted late last year to strong sales in America’s hot compact ute segment.

All but forgotten are Buick cars like the LaCrosse and Regal, which have seen sales decline with the rest of the U.S. sedan market. The all-new Regal’s introduction next month promises a catwalk stunner that will further elevate the brand’s design turnaround.

But Peck says its Buick’s gamble on SUVs that has really paid off.

“We got it right,” she says of Buick’s strong presence in a market where SUVs now make up over half of sales. By contrast GM stablemate Cadillac — despite a wave of critically acclaimed performance sedans — has struggled with only one crossover to offer. The giant Escalade is built on the Chevy Silverado pickup frame.

Peck credits Buick’s timing to “a lot of open-mindedness. We needed a home run. We didn’t think of ourselves as a car-only brand. We recognized the market is changing and evolving.”

Buick’s new product focus was built on a strong foundation of vehicle reliability. That’s why it consistently rubs shoulders with brands like Lexus and Porsche in Consumer Reports and J.D. Power studies. Buick has been in the Top 10 of J.D. Power’s vehicle reliability study for more than 15 years.

It’s that consistency that is essential to brand marketing, says Peck. The stylish, married mother of two teenagers fits Buick’s target demographic of a successful executive with family.

“We keep pushing and pushing — it’s a job that requires a lot of patience and consistency,” says Peck, who has an MBA. “I like the challenge of changing Buick’s image. I think we are turning the corner, and as you turn the corner it gives us more momentum and you get more energized by it. We see it in the research. You can sense in the focus groups that people are becoming more open to the brand.”

She is patient with the prospects of Buick’s sedans, which have taken a hit even as the LaCrosse, for example, has received raves for its style and an athletic all-wheel drive system found only in the Ford Focus RS hot hatchback.

“The sedan segment is rebalancing with SUVs, but large lux is still 20 percent car sales,” says Peck, who points hopefully to the Avenir and Avista car concepts that wowed Detroit Auto Show goers over the last two years. “Avista has been a phenomenal success, the year before was Avenir. Elements of the vehicles do translate — the Avenir showed our new grille and tricolor badge. So there are elements that foreshadow things to come.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.