Sure, we’ve all seen them-the cheesy tv commercials the local car dealership puts on your local tv station. Gimmicks, cheap suits you wouldn’t wish your worst enemy to be buried in, godawful production values and ad copy written by an eighth grader fronted by car salesmen whose acting is so wooden they would not stand a chance of landing a role even the smallest town’s local theater group. You either cringe, or laugh out loud at just truly awful it is. It’s one thing when the ad is by your local Honda, Chevy or Toyota dealer. The cars speak for themselves, and in many cases, sell themselves based on reputation alone. The buyer can laugh off those horrible commercials.
That’s fine when you are one of the best selling brands out there, but what if you are a brand trying to establish a new identity? A brand trying to come off as a premium one at that? That changes things. As automotive journalists, myself and Founding Editor Gary Grant have seen firsthand just how hard car companies try to foster a certain image to their prospective buyers. The work they do is exhaustive, I assure you. You, the car buyer, or casual enthusiast, many not see it, but major car manufacturers today have entire departments focused solely on social media, public perception, and are constantly trying to find new ways to reach out to new car buyers.
Take, for example, Buick. After GM’s restructuring, Buick stands alone as the gap between Chevy and Cadilliac, but was saddled with an aging buyer demographic and somewhat stale cars. Not the sort of thing that gets your adrenaline pumping. Buick’s current line, with the LaCrosse, Regal, and Verano are all fine cars seeking a new, younger, yet affluent audience. The cars are good, but Buick has a long way to go of changing the mindset of car buyers under the age of 60 to want their car.
Buick fully understands the image problem. A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to attend a special event in Boston, the hippest, most vibrant city in all of my native New England. In an effort to tap into Boston’s young, affluent car buying market, the idea was to combine the allure of fine cuisine with the opportunity to see, touch, and sample the latest and greatest Buick has to offer. Not an inexpensive undertaking, but fine food is a clever way of attracting the desired crowd. And hey, even if they do not actually buy a Buick, the casual Bostonian foodee is surely going to tell his/her friends and family that the new Buicks are actually pretty cool cars.
So, you see, Buick is trying their hardest with updating their image, with quality cars to back it up. But…those dealer ads. I won’t name them, but the local Buick dealer is airing a promotion called ‘A Buick for a Buck.” That is, a one dollar down payment for your brand new Buick. The advertisements are relentless, but the tagline on each commercial is the dealer ‘just wants to get you a loan.’ It brings the car down to the lowest common denominator. That it isn’t even about the car anymore.
And therein lies the problem. Buick is trying their hardest to build good cars, and rebuild their image with the aim to appeal to a broader audience-namely, a more affluent audience. But the local Buick dealer is the face of your company, and their message to the car buying public in your area is we will get you a loan as long as you have a pulse. In thirty seconds, the millions of dollars Buick has invested in their cars, and their marketing efforts have instantly evaporated. Buick wants to be an aspirational brand, but with tv commercials like these, they cannot. Buick, as a company, has set its sights on Lexus, but with ads like these, it literally leads a path to Lexus’ door, since they never put junk like this on the air.
Buick, you’ve done the hard work of building a good car. You know you need to reach out the the buyer you want, and you are. But the dealer is where the money changes hands. Sure, I could have gone to Boston, enjoyed the beautiful city and fine food as a backdrop to your cars and come away impressed. But my local Buick dealer keeps telling me if my credit is awful, or if I have one dollar, I can have a new Buick. And to the dealer, don’t tell me you can just get me a loan, tell me you can sell me an awesome car.