GM Has Something Different in Buick

Tickers in this article: F GM

DETROIT ( TheStreet) -- In the auto industry, where brands constantly seek to differentiate themselves from competitors, few brands are more different than Buick.

Primarily, Buick survived at GM (GM) while Mercury, its mid-market counterpart at Ford (F) , didn't. One reason is that, uniquely, Buick is a U.S. brand that is more popular in China, where it sold 645,537 vehicles in 2011, than it is in the U.S., where it sold 177,633 vehicles. Moreover, a recent study by Polk found another unique Buick attribute: Its buyers are getting younger, while everybody else's buyers are getting older.

Tony DiSalle, U.S. vice president of Buick Marketing, said Buick "is a luxury brand, but it is different.

"Traditional luxury has been an exclusive club," DiSalle said, in an interview at the New York Auto Show. "At Buick, it is much more approachable." He said Buick does things "with a smile" and finds that its buyers are more "community-minded" than buyers of other brands.

Then there is this: On Thursday, a Buick press release noted that Verano buyers are much more likely to buy red cars than are buyers of other brands and other models.

"Verano buyers are more expressive and progressive," explained a Buick spokesman. While red is only the fifth most popular color in the industry, a quarter of all Verano buyers select a crystal red paint job, Buick said.

Perhaps this is the point where Buick takes the need to differentiate itself a little too far. Or perhaps the effort should be respected because it has, in fact, been earned.

Polk analyst Tom Libby said Buick is uniquely positioned between brands. That is "a challenge for GM, (which) has to keep Buick from overlapping Chevrolet, on the one hand, and Cadillac, at the top," he said. In comparing Buick to Mercury, he said, "Ford did not, over the years, very strongly differentiate from Mercury from Ford: The Sable and the Taurus were essentially the same car. Buick is doing a much better job," he said. There is very little similarity between Buick and Chevrolet."

In his study of variations in the age of automobile buyers, Libby found that among 42 brands of automobiles sold in the U.S., only Buick showed a decline in the average age of its buyers between 2007 and 2011. Overall, the average new-car buyer was 51 in 2011, up from 48 in 2007, most likely a function of the rising cost of new cars. At Buick, the average age declined to 59 from 62. That is the good news; the bad news is that Buick now has the second oldest buyers. The average Lincoln buyer is 60, up from 55 in 2007, which is a trend that Ford hopes to reverse. Cadillac has the third oldest buyer, with an average age of 57, while Land Rover has the youngest buyer, with an average age of 47.

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