How to save the Buick brand? Let’s have a party!

Forget each of Vanity Fair, Congressional Quarterly, The Economist, GQ and the National Enquirer: The only contemporary publication that properly depicts the zeitgeist of this age, with all the attendant tumult and hullabaloo, is Brandweek. The others are all just so 2006. I can’t imagine how you might expect to know where you stand in the world if you don’t closely study each issue of Brandweek.

Here’s what I mean: Practically any news source will lead you directly to the conclusion that the managers of General Motors Corporation are hopeless imbeciles who haven’t the slightest idea how to run an auto company (see the latest stupidity here and here.) But only Brandweek details the full extent of their deficiencies — and, as an added kick, leaves you with News You Can Use.

Grab yourself a copy of the June 26 edition, and flip to Elaine Wong’s report headlined “GM Attempts to Redefine Buick Brand Via Partying.” Ms. Wong manages to cram more undiluted revelation into a mere 12 paragraphs than we, as information consumers, have any right to expect.

As deep background, let’s begin with GM’s ill-advised attempts to bring order to their mish-mash of legendary product badges. You’ve witnessed the follies as the General unsuccessfully sold and then folded Saturn, mothballed and then ditched Saab, bobbled and finally unloaded Hummer, cast off and then decided to keep Opel, and, lastly, without a pause for thought, mercy-killed Pontiac, which only happened to be one of their best-selling brands.

Not your grandmother's Regal -- but how, exactly?

From the outset, though, GM was determined to hang on to Buick, which it insisted (on the basis of scant evidence) had a brilliant future. The linchpin of those prospects is the introduction of the Buick Regal, a re-branded Opel Insignia, Europe’s Car of the Year in 2009. There’s nothing whatsoever new in the slightest about GM slapping American emblems on last year’s Opel models. In fact, the discontinued Saab 93 and Saturn Aura – not to mention the still-extant Cadillac CTS and Chevrolet Malibu – are all different permutations of the same flavor of Opel. That’s the same Opel division that GM tried to sell to Frank Stronach, until they changed their minds on a whim.

According to Brandweek, what’s fascinating about the challenge GM faces in pitching the Opel as a Buick, is that the market the company has targeted — the youngish North American managerial class that digs Audi, Mercedes, and Acura — wouldn’t be caught on a dare behind the wheel of anything labelling itself a Buick, which Ms. Wong accurately, if uncharitably, calls a “stodgy, driven-by-your-grandparents vehicle.”

Well, it’s been proven that you can revitalize the career of 89-year-old comedy actress Betty White, by getting her to talk dirty on late-night TV. How do you reconstruct the Buick image into something that ignites the passion of Skippy the e-marketer, or that sassy Nicole from down in the HR department?

I know. Let’s have a party! Woooooohh.

Yes, a party. And so, GM has engaged the services of the Cohn & Wolfe PR consultancy, and something called Thrillist, to invite groups of 500 taste-makers to ‘Regal Remix’ parties in five cities. (Thrillist, we learn, is an e-newsletter aimed at ‘trendsetting urban males.’) The party assembles these bonny wee swingers to “sip cocktails, listen to music, check out the new Buicks and change their perceptions in between.”

This is not my beautiful house

As anyone who has ever groggily found themselves in a Rodeway Inn in Yreka will confirm, it’s no big deal to jump from slurping Mojitos and White Russians, to waking up and discovering you’ve changed perceptions. However, Billy Fuccillo himself might advise you that there’s many a slip twixt getting these pigeons to drink your free booze at night, and getting them into a cubicle in the dealership during daylight hours to sign the goddamned lease agreement.

Mr. Fuccillo: The name of the game is moving product

But there I go, sounding like the kind of brown-shoed fogey who has never previously heard of Shill-list, I mean Thrillist. What I meant to say was: Listen, daddio, this party idea is gangbusters. To demonstrate how we know that’s the case, here’s a quote direct from Brandweek: “Data from Zeta Interactive, an interactive marketing agency in New York, shows that Buick moved from being No. 17 to No. 8 in terms of auto tonal buzz (a ratio of positive versus negative chatter about the brand) as of June 1.”

Pity that the GM brain-trust didn’t have that factoid in hand, back last year when they were pleading for handouts from the governments of the USA, Canada, and the EU: “Senator, have I told you about our auto tonal buzz? Through the roof!”

I rather admire the advent of tonal buzz, a patently farcical concept, as an attempt to quantify, and monetize, nothing whatsoever. The very phrase seems like a cartoon punch-line in search of a hilarious situation. “Sorry I wrecked your Buick, pops, but the good news is that you’ve moved from No. 12 to No. 3 in terms of parental tonal buzz.”

Indeed, I doff my Kangol cap to the cheeky lads at Zeta Interactive for their astonishing bravado, if that’s what it is. If you or I were to encounter a group of executives so stupid that they had convinced themselves their only shot at survival was to tie their corporate future to a brand that was irredeemably out-of-date, we might feel a kind of pity. These marketing cats only see opportunity.

Someone persuaded poor, pathetic General Motors to first treat a bunch of deadbeats to the par-tay of the year, and then, to top it off, they sold GM a sure-fire system to quantify that they weren’t just taking a fortune, and blowing it on whiskey and loud music. That must have been the night they invented tonal buzz.

I’m grateful to Brandweek for shedding light on this magnificent new process that takes taxpayers’ money, and converts it into tonal buzz – a precious substance that has to be worth at least as much as equity in the General Motors Corporation. That is to say that if you jumped in your mom’s creaky old Buick and drove your stash of tonal buzz down to the bank branch and tried to deposit it in your account, you would be met by a group of tellers laughing at you and shaking their heads.

But no one’s laughing at GM — are they? Say, do you think you might pass me over one of those fine-looking Mojitos?


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