Industry Pulse | Tony DiSalle on the new, modern Buick

Industry Pulse | Tony DiSalle on the new, modern Buick

Just weeks before kicking off another auto show season, we met with Tony DiSalle, U.S. Vice President of Marketing for Buick and GMC. He was in town to speak to the Washington Automotive Press Association at their year-end event, so we snagged a few minutes with Tony to hear first-hand about Buick’s brand transformation, their plans for 2016 (including the beautiful new Cascada convertible), and how they’re targeting Millennials.

Q&A with Tony DiSalle, U.S. VP of Marketing for Buick and GMC

GM-TonyDiSalle2013-01-medium{Melanie Batenchuk}: Coming off the heels of the LA Auto Show with the new LaCrosse, tell us a little bit about the new LaCrosse and what’s so exciting about it for the Buick brand.

{Tony DiSalle}: It’s our flagship, and that vehicle does so many things for the brand. One, it’s the first production model to bring the new face of Buick to market. You might have seen us introduce a new concept vehicle last year called the Avenir, which means “the future” in French. And we told everybody “it is truly a concept”, but from a design standpoint, you’ll see some of what is in the Avenir inspire future Buicks. LaCrosse is the first production model to do that.

{MB}: Buick, along with some of the other luxury automakers, are facing the challenge of an aging demographic of your typical buyer. Let’s talk about the “That’s a Buick” ad campaign. What’s next for Buick in its advertising plans?

{TD}: The campaign has been, and continues to be, very successful. What we’ve seen is, obviously, people in this country have a dated view of what a Buick is. And that’s less so with Millennials – it’s more of a clean sheet of paper [for them]. “You tell me what it is and I’ll form an opinion.”

[The ad campaign is] true to the brand. It’s very authentic. We use self-deprecating humor and we use that misperception to draw people in. But the message is so much more than attention getting. The message is to educate them on what today’s Buicks are, and we get very consistent feedback on how stunning the exterior design of our product is.

Our objective is really to have somebody see a Buick and say one word – and that’s “beautiful”.

Image credit: Buick

Image credit: Buick

Phase two of the campaign, which we’ve been in the midst of for eight or nine months, is becoming a little more declarative. We started talking about how all Buicks have WIFI, how we have 5-Star crash ratings across the board, and this summer we launched the 24 hour test drive.

And so we’re proclaiming a little bit more about what you can expect from Buick, including a rather revolutionary way to take the stress out of a test drive. The confidence we have in our products [is evident] in the fact that we want consumers to take these vehicles home.

And then, what we’ll see going forward is us becoming even more declarative. We have Cascada, Envision, and LaCrosse to launch this calendar year.

This is a great place to be for our brand because we’ve been building this brand over the last few years or so without new entries. I mean, Encore, was the last new entry we had in the portfolio. We’re excited to get back in the mode of launching new vehicles with Buick.

Buick Cascada Super Bowl 50 ad{MB}: Speaking of ads, do you have anything planned for Super Bowl?

{TD}: I can’t tell you. (He grins and all but confirms with his eyes.)

(Of course Buick did have its first-ever spot in the SB50 game and you can watch that here.

{MB}: You’re saying the ads are really resonating; the message is resonating with your target audience. What are some of the sales you’re seeing as a result?

{TD}: We’ve had five years of consecutive year-over-year growth in the U.S. We will set, globally, our third consecutive sales record when you include North America and China. This was a record that was set in 1984 and not touched again for 29 years.

{MB}: As far as conquest sales, who are the biggest competitors that you’re trying to steal customers from?

{TD}: We’re seeing almost half. I think the latest number was about 46 percent non-GM source of sale – so somebody will either be trading in a non-GM vehicle or will have no trade. And that’s a pretty big number when you have as many brands and portfolios as GM has.

About half of those are coming from mainstream imports that are actually moving up into luxury, and that’s really the role of Buick – to capture a lot of move-ups into the luxury space. We bring [more of] a value proposition than more traditional luxury, but we also bring a positioning proposition.

Most luxury brands are about membership to an exclusive club. Buick is much more inclusive, warm, welcoming and inviting.

It’s also much more approachable from a value perspective as well. You get quiet. You get comfort. You get things that make it a very luxurious experience.

2017 Buick LaCrosse unveiling at LA Auto Show

Image credit: Buick

{MB}: Buick has seen a lot of success in China. Have you tried bringing anything you’ve learned in that market to the U.S. market?

{TD}: A good example in the current generation LaCrosse is rear seat roominess, which is absolutely required in China. It became a requirement for the product program and we benefitted as a win here in North America as well.

We work seamlessly with the team in China – it’s one brand – to ensure we have the best customer requirements for both products.

The portfolio is deeper in China, so they’ll go lower with more mainstream vehicles because they have developing Tier 3 and 4 markets. But the positioning is still as a luxury brand.

{MB}: What’s the age group – is it a big span of age – in China?

{TD}: Average age is about 35. And these are typically relatively wealthy young people. And quite frankly, we have equity (and compliments to our senior leadership years and years ago for investing in the Buick brand in China – it was the car of the last emperor) and so it was culturally ingrained you know for many, many years.

In a culture where younger people respect and listen and adhere to the advice of their elders, it was wonderful, fortunate, [for Buick] to be that culturally ingrained..

2016 Chevrolet Volt

2016 Chevy Volt | Image credit: GM

{MB}: You’ve been with General Motors for a while now.

{TD}: Almost 29 years

{MB}: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned working with OnStar and with the Chevy Volt that you’re bringing over to the Buick brand?

{TD}: With OnStar, it was interesting because we created a brand where there was no frame of reference at all. It was a completely new category and that was a great experience for me, personally – to have that opportunity. But it also taught me a lot about education and the need to educate consumers and the important of nuance and messaging.

There were a lot of lessons that I learned from my time at OnStar. It was a wonderful, very fast developing space. I also learned the value of connectivity – and I think we as a company learned that before our competitors did. Safety and security matters a ton and [we learned] that connectivity can be leveraged to do other things that we’re doing now, like delivering WIFI and in-vehicle 4G LTE.

Actually, I was asked to launch the Chevy Volt because of having the experience of creating a brand where there is no consumer frame of reference. They thought that was analogous to what we needed to do with the Volt.

The Volt launch was heavily dependent on PR and on the media – and making sure the media understood what this vehicle is. It was so front-and-center and such an important product for the company.

Image credit: Buick

Image credit: Buick

But the piece on Volt that I also carry with me to Buick is the importance of the customer experience. And we did a lot of things to architect a superior customer experience on the volt, including a “white glove” customer call center and a dedicated phone number for Volt customers. We trained our advisers to go above and beyond the call of duty.

{MB}: What are some things that maybe other manufacturers could learn from Buick based on what you’re doing now to reach Millennials. What’s setting you apart, making your approach unique? And how are you getting that down to the dealer level?

{TD}: I think one of the things that’s been key to [Buick’s] success is the position of the brand, backed up by great product. We’ve had a very successful advertising campaign and continue to have that, but it all falls flat if the product doesn’t really deliver very well.

“One of the things that’s been key to Buick’s success is the poition of the brand, backed up by great product.” – Tony DiSalle, VP of Marketing, Buick

It’s interesting because two key positives are the ad campaign and great new products. And the reality is that we haven’t had a real new product since the Encore three years ago, and so what that tells me is they’re new to a lot of people who hadn’t been paying attention to us.

It’s the campaign that’s brought [new customers] in, but it’s the product that’s delivering on that promise.

We’re staying true to the brand. There’s an element of authenticity in this warm, inviting, inclusive luxury brand – a little bit more down-to-earth, more attainable. And we’re staying true to that in the marketing of Buick and in the product rollout.

{MB}: So what should Baby Boomers be buying now?

{TD}: It’s interesting because, obviously, we’re very proud of our very loyal Buick base, and we want to continue to cultivate that – continue to sell to those people, particularly those folks who may be considering their third LaCrosse.

To me, it’s not an “either or”; it’s the best of all worlds being able to cater to an even broader market.

The spirit of Buick is that inclusiveness – the ability to continue to sell to this [older] market but also reach the younger demographic. We’re seeing tremendous growth in places like Miami, Florida and Los Angeles, California.

{MB}: And the Cascada will probably help with that.

{TD}: And that’s an example of where Buick has been very good, from a product portfolio perspective, in targeting what we would call “white space”.
Verano was white space between compact and compact luxury. Encore was the first of the small SUVs.

The timing was perfect for a convertible because a lot of the competition is gone – at least at that price point – so we’re really encouraged about what we can do there.

In 2016, obviously a new LaCrosse, a new Envision compact utility, which is now the largest, fastest growing segment in the industry. The Envision will fill the void between Encore and Enclave. And Cascada will be a fresh halo, but also a real business proposition I think now that the competitors have kind of cleared the field and we have the space to ourselves to introduce this vehicle.

{MB}: Do you have timing on those vehicles yet?

{TD}: Cascada is by the end of January, early February they should start to hit dealers. Both LaCrosse and Envision will start rolling out to dealers in the summertime.

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This article was written by

Melanie Batenchuk founded Be Car Chic in 2009 as a way to help consumers make smart decisions when buying and selling their cars. Her prior work at the dealership, trade association and manufacturer levels has provided her a deep understanding of the complex facets within the auto industry, making her a leading woman in her field.