Why China Loves Buick

In America, Buick is
widely considered an old fashioned car brand perhaps
best known for being the favorite of
American grandparents. But in China, Buick is a
kind of automotive rock star General Motors’s near
luxury brand was barely saved from the
chopping block during the financial crisis in
part because of Buick’s strong performance in
China. However, despite efforts to turn the
brand around, Buick has not yet managed to distinguish
itself in the United States. U.S. sales of
the brand fell considerably further in 2018 than did
any other GM mark even though Buick had
realigned its portfolio toward SUV and crossovers and
made bold and critically praised bets on sleek
cars and wagons borrowed from GM’s former European
portfolio. But in China, which has the world’s
largest auto market, Buick is considered an
elite, almost exclusive brand. In 2018, just over
80 percent of Buicks global sales were in China.
GM sells more Buicks in China than on its home
turf in the U.S. like almost five times as
many. It also outperforms all other U.S. manufacturers
that sell there. In America, Buick sold just
under 207,000 Buicks in 2018.
A 5% decline over the previous year. But
in China, the brand sold over one million vehicles for
the third year in a row. That is almost one third of the 3.64 million total vehicles GM sold that year! It is roughly
twice the number of Chevrolets and four
times the number of Cadillacs. Only GM’s
China exclusive Wuling brand topped Buick and only
by a few thousand units. Buick also sells Audi,
BMW, and Mercedes Benz in China. So why did a
brand that struggles at home become such a hit
over there? The reasons for this unusual status are varied
and go back a long way. Buick has been in
China since the early 20th century. It was a car
of choice for many famous Chinese political figures
including Sun Yat Sen, commonly regarded as one
of the founding fathers of modern China. And
Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the
People’s Republic of China. China’s first impression of
beauty comes from the 1950s Buick. And this
is when all the important representatives of state
and government officials in China were riding
around in Buicks. Go back and look at 1950
Buick and you think about them driving around the
streets of China. It would’ve left quite
an impression on everyone who saw one. One key moment
came in the 1990s when China’s auto market was
still very much in its infancy. Buick was already
GM’s most famous brand in China and it
partnered with a local manufacturer to make
brand new vehicles that stood very much
apart from the competition. Bearing the name that
already had such a prestigious reputation in
the country, the Chinese never forgot
that. The brand’s prestigious reputation
particularly among the country’s decision makers
gave it a considerable head start. But it
didn’t rest on its reputation. Some credit is also due
to GM’s partner in the region. Shanghai
Automotive Industry Corporation which is about the
best regional partner GM could hope to have in the
country. SAIC has over the years pushed GM to keep
the quality of its cars high and the product
fresh. A very important step in a country where
consumers are spoiled for choice. The result is that
the fit and finish in Chinese Buicks is the
best the brand offers in the world. As of 2018
Buick had sold 10 million units in China since
it had first launched in 1998. So they have a big
partner that’s what got them established and that will
be one of the key factors for them to
continue to thrive in China. It’s going to depend on maintaining that relationship and continuing to foster that relationship. A lot of success depends on a good domestic partner. Over the years, Buick
has also been careful to cater to these somewhat
unique tastes of the Chinese buyer. For example
in China one of the major coaches of choice for high powered executives is, believe it or not: the minivan. Spacious and luxurious,
minivans have almost a limousine-like status in
China. So Buick answered that call and made
upscale minivans that are considered some of Buicks
marquee products in the country. The vans
have interiors considerably upgraded from the average
family mover found in the United States and
enough space to seat a Chinese executive’s
sometimes large entourage. The brand has also worked
hard to appeal to the country’s younger consumers.
The average Chinese Buick buyer is younger
than 35. About half the age of the average buyer
in the U.S. Even Buick’s Chinese advertisements are
distinct. Bearing high tech and futuristic depictions
of young urban and often wealthy people. On the other hand, Buick
has struggled in the U.S. for a variety of reasons. A decline in quality over the decades is
partly to blame, say many industry analysts. Buick
also fell victim to wider practices at GM
such as the habit the automaker had of
slapping different brand names in a single vehicle. The characteristics that made Buick distinct from
fellow GM brands, not to mention other competitors,
faded away and the brand lost its
identity, becoming mostly a vehicle for customers who
remembered what it had been in its heyday. Now
Buick is trying to take some of the lessons it
has learned in China and bring them back home as
it tries to forge a renaissance in America.
For example, GM began manufacturing the Buick
Envision in China and importing it to the United States. Something President Trump seems to have overlooked when he was on the campaign trail slamming U.S. automakers for building cars abroad. “So these are the biggest
in the world and we’re going to be talking to them and we want them to build more cars in the United States and also build them here and ship them overseas.” GM even sought an exception to U.S. tariffs on imported cars for the Envision. It will not be easy for Buick to shake its frumpy image and get back on buyers’ consideration lists. Buick has for several years now scored highly on industry analysis firm J.D. Powers metrics for quality and has also earned competitive scores on service. But Buick knows it has to fight to change buyer perceptions in the U.S. One recent ad campaign featured actors pointing to the brands cars and asking incredulously: “Is that a Buick?”, as though they were surprised something so stylish could bear that nameplate. But industry analysts, such as Cox automotive
Karl Brauer, think the brand can still make a go of it in the U.S. if it can succeed in China. That prompts the question of how long Buick’s success in China can last? As Brauer is quick to note: “a company’s reputation in China can change in an instant,” often for reasons that have little to do with the brand itself. Japanese and Korean automakers have found this in the past. Buick is the eighth largest brand in China in terms of market share, competing with other foreign heavyweights such as Volkswagen, Honda, Toyota, and Nissan as well as several Chinese name brands. So far, things have been far better for GM in China than they have been for Detroit’s other big automakers. Fiat, Chrysler, and Ford. But it doesn’t look like the good times can go on forever.