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 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. In his report, Libby wrote, "Buick has brought in more young buyers by dramatically altering its product portfolio, adding the Regal and placing much greater emphasis on the Enclave (average age: 56 for both) while discontinuing the Lucerne (average age: 70 years). In 2011, the Regal and Enclave accounted for more than half of all Buick retail deliveries. Going forward, Buick will benefit from the recently-launched compact Verano, though the age of the Verano buyer so far (59 years) is higher than the Buick team probably would like. "Polk's Automotive Forecast indicates Buick has additional new products and powertrain enhancements in the pipeline, which should attract younger buyers," he wrote. As Ford moves to remake Lincoln, it probably should take a lesson from Buick, Analyst Rebecca Lindland of IHS Global Insight has said. "The baseline problem with Lincoln is that they have to do what Buick did, which is to get people to reconsider the brand," she said. "Buick is on people's radar screens now; it wasn't a couple of years ago." In China, Buick got a lucky break in the 1920s when the last emperor, Pu Yi, owned two Buicks. "When we started selling vehicles in China we already had somewhat of a legacy established," said spokesman Phil Colley. "But we've done a good job leveraging that goodwill and affinity towards the brand, and the Buick Excelle is the top-selling vehicle in China. So, it's more about vehicles now than anything else."
Despite its successes, Buick has not exactly emerged from the pack in the U.S. auto market. In 2011, the brand sold just 10% of the number of vehicles that Chevrolet sold, and just 7% of the 2.5 million vehicles that GM sold. Buick sales were up 14% in 2011. But in the first quarter of 2012, Buick sales declined 17%, which the brand says reflects an effort to vastly reduce fleet sales. In the first quarter, Buick retail sales declined 5%, while GM retail sales declined 1%. "Buick makes nice product and it is making inroads," said Scott Oldham, editor-in-chief at Edmunds.com. "But it's hard to make the argument that it's super successful. "It hasn't leapfrogged the competition, it hasn't reinvented the segment and it hasn't put Lexus out of business," Oldham said. "It has made great strides, but this is not exactly a revolution." It is worth noting, however, that Buick is the oldest existing U.S. automaker. Since it was founded in 1899, and sold its first car in 1904, dozens of automakers have come and gone. The joke is that some of the early Buick buyers remain Buick buyers. The truth is that among the most important achievements in business are to survive and to continually innovate, and Buick is doing both. -- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/tedreednc.