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Buick Chasing "March Madness" Crowd For New Luxury Buyers

The classic brand for bankers and lawyers is now out for college grads

Fans of the NCAA "March Madness" men's basketball tournament are going to be seeing a new brand sponsor this week that they are not used to: Buick. Over the next three weeks, General Motors expects its sponsorship of the games to net it over one billion consumer impressions from ads on TV, radio and social media channels like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter.

Yes, despite Buick's average age buyer, which is around 60, the GM brand is on all the social media channels. And while many consumers would not consider Buick a real "luxury" brand in the class of Lexus or BMW, the company has been driving that idea home with new product and advertising for more than a year. Buick last year was the fastest growing brand in the U.S. among major auto companies, and in it outsold Lexus in the first two months of the year.

"People are absolutely taking Buick seriously as a modern luxury brand," says Tony DiSalle, U.S. vice president of marketing. In a new ad for the Buick Regal Turbo, which basketball fans will see this week, the man driving the Regal is about 30 years old, and he looks like he has money.

Buick does not have the obvious brand cachet of GM's Cadillac brand, BMW, or Mercedes-Benz. "That's right," says DiSalle. "Buick is a luxury brand, but for people who don't necessary want to be loud and obvious about it." Some auto reviewers, in fact, have praised the new Buick LaCrosse as being better than Lexus. Buick engineers actually studied Lexus sedans to beat the Japanese brand on cabin quietness and other key measures to which luxury buyers pay attention.

It's a promising and comeback for a brand that the White House Auto Industry Task Force, which guided GM's bankruptcy in 2009, had targeted for closure. Buick's sponsorship of March Madness, in fact, fills the hole left by Pontiac's big sponsorship of the tournament after the task force's successful shuttering of that brand.

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It's been a while since consumers thought Buick was a cool brand, or even saw the vehicles highlighted in pop culture. In the 1988 movie "Rain Man," it is a classic Buick Roadmaster that Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman drive, the car having belonged to their father and kept in loving condition under wraps in a garage. Patrick Swayze drove a 1964 Buick Riviera in the 1989 movie "Road House." The '64 Riviera also turns up as a favorite car of Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesce in the 1990 classic "Goodfellas." Buicks of more recent vintage, though, have not caught the eye of movie directors. And the public wasn't paying much attention either until the Buick Enclave arrived four years ago. The full-size crossover has captured sales from former owners of minivans and truck-based SUVs because of its smooth ride and large carrying capacity.

So why does Buick think college basketball is the right fit? Because the games attract fierce college grad fans following their alma-maters. College educated sports fans earn higher income. And those are the consumers Buick is going after with its "luxury" positioning. The only other brand of car that is an official sponsor of the tournament is Nissan's luxury brand Infiniti.

While Buick, having sold 155,000 vehicles last year, is trying to come back in the U.S., it never left the scene in China, the world's fastest growing market for new cars and trucks. Chinese consumers love Buick so much they bought more of them in China than Americans bought in 2010. A Buick Enclave SUV that costs around $40,000 in the U.S. actually costs about $70,000 in Beijing after taxes, shipping costs and currency exchange. GM also builds Buicks in China, like the new Regal.

China is so important to Buick that designers in Shanghai actually led on the look of the new Regal and Buick LaCrosse sedan. That's right. The U.S. was a secondary market for Buick.

The brand is attracting all kinds. Chet Fornell, a 55 year old financial planner in Pelham, NY bought a LaCrosse for him and his partner last year after trading in a Toyota Avalon. "I used to own a couple of Buicks back in the 1980s, but some quality issues made me change. My partner and I thought this car was really nice looking and classy, so we went for it."

Even at 55, Buick will take Fornell as a younger buyer. Until last year, the average age of a Buick buyer was over 70. The popularity of the Enclave SUV, the LaCrosse and now the Regal with younger buyers, has dropped the median down to about 60. Next year the company will launch a sedan smaller than the Regal, the Verano, which is expected to cost around $24,000.

Former Buick dealer and now auto industry consultant James Dollinger doesn't like the idea of the lower priced Buick like the Verano, and he is skeptical about the "luxury" positioning. "I don't see Buick as luxury, because luxury says 'I have more and better stuff than you do,'" says Dollinger. "Buick is elegant, understated yet distinctive, powerful and mature."

GM is sticking with the idea, though. Buick executives say that about 40% of buyers taking delivery on a new Buick these days are trading in a non-GM car to get one. "That means we are turning heads," says Buick's DiSalle.

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