They call her Melina.
She’s young and tech-savvy. She lives downtown, makes a good salary, and likes to treat herself. Massages, nice clothes – that sort of thing.
Melina isn’t real, but she is Buick’s best hope. It’s the name executives at Buick use internally for their ideal target customer. Buick, owned by General Motors Co., has for years been known as the roomy ride driven by older men. But it is a brand in decline. Last year, it moved 11,652 units in Canada, according to DesRosiers Automotive Consultants Inc. That’s a nice 38-per-cent recovery from a dismal 2009, but still just over half the number it sold pre-recession in 2006. Its future now depends on courting younger drivers like Melina.
“We are seeing a shift to a younger consumer,” said Rob Assimakopoulous, general director of marketing and communications at Buick. “It’s just the beginning.”
Buick is just one example of a larger marketing challenge for brands that have gone stale, and become known for attracting only older consumers. It’s not profitable to ignore that older segment, of course, but to have a future, companies cannot appeal only to an aging consumer. But how do you make old brands new again?
Some marketers have succeeded, across different industries. Today, Pabst Blue Ribbon is the fashionably retro beer of urban hipsters, but it started the millennium as a waning product. Sales had been declining steadily since 1978. The things that now give the brand its popularity – its retro design; long-held roots, being established in 1844; and non-fancy, working-class associations – had none of their current cool factor. The company began to turn that around, testing a word-of-mouth marketing campaign in Portland, Ore., judging that if the city’s skeptical young crowd could be won over, any consumer could. That soon expanded across the country.
In the world of brash, noisy big beer ads, Pabst stayed mum – deciding that the younger consumer would not respond to overt advertising. Instead, it sponsored indie music shows and smaller cultural events to get the cans into the right hands. It saw its first year of sales growth in more than 20 years in 2002. The brand has continued to build momentum since then with very little spending on advertising. It has cultivated an alternative, unpretentious image appealing to the young, urban and bearded all over North America.
That strategy of honing a message of authenticity is crucial to reaching younger consumers. Another, very different product, also learned this lesson in recent years: Kotex.
Jay Gottleib has the kind of job that means he can tell you how many women in Canada start menstruating for the first time every day. (It’s roughly 500.) In 2010, the problem for his company was that it was only popular with the women who would soon not be menstruating at all. (That’s about the same number.)
“It had become not just your mother’s brand, but your grandmother’s brand,” said Mr. Gottleib, the vice-president in North America at Kimberly-Clark Corp. for Kotex, Poise and Depend. “We had our fair share of women exiting the category.”
Kotex had gotten lazy. For the prior 20 years or so, the company that claims to have invented the disposable sanitary pad had not made many changes, including to its advertising.
So in March of 2010, it launched U by Kotex. The first ad was a breath of fresh air.
“The ads on TV are really helpful, because they use that blue liquid, and I’m like ‘Oh, that’s what’s supposed to happen,’” a young woman in the commercial said sardonically. She panned the ridiculous images of typical feminine care ads: slow-motion twirling, cheery dancing, running on the beach, and a myriad of activities undertaken while wearing white spandex.
But Kimberly-Clark was as guilty as any other for the sunny innuendo that dominated pad and tampon marketing: All of the ads that the 30-second spot mocked as “ridiculous” were actually excerpts of the company’s own commercials.
The marketing strategy was to speak to younger consumers in an authentic way. The response was immediate. Young women were sick of being told, through images of clean, non-grumpy blondes frolicking in pastoral meadows, that their periods were something they had to pretend did not exist. In the first three months, 600,000 samples of U were requested and 1.2 million visitors went to the website.
Mr. Gottleib says he wishes U could have been even bolder in its advertising. The marketing team wanted to stress that “vagina” is not a dirty word, for example, but knew they would have trouble getting a commercial approved for broadcast TV if they used it.
But the results have still been encouraging. Just over two years after the U launch, Kotex has expanded its share of the North American market to 18 per cent, up from 14 per cent. U is driving all of that growth. Kotex is launching a new campaign for U in January that “pushes the conversation further,” Mr. Gottleib says. Younger women are its future.
While it is a very different product, Buick is also looking to younger women. Last February, Buick launched the Verano, with ads featuring young women enjoying fine coffee, relaxing in luxurious beach settings and driving the kind of compact, fuel-efficient vehicle Buick has not traditionally been known for. It has advertised via “cafés” set up at large-city events to serve young visitors coffee and introduce them to the luxury compact. The brand is now launching its largest social media campaign ever, lending cars to people who have high Klout scores – signifying their influence on social media – in hopes they will talk about their experiences on Twitter, Pinterest, and elsewhere online.
So far, the Verano has been a bright spot – if a small one – in an otherwise undeniably dim sales story for Buick (and GM as a whole). As of the end of October, total Buick sales year to date are up 15 per cent, driven entirely by the Verano. (Other models such as the LaCrosse and the Lucerne are down.) It’s attracting some new customers: Nearly 30 per cent of Verano buyers are non-GM owners. The brand is now preparing for a new launch, in 2013, of the Encore, a crossover that is also compact and targeted at a younger buyer.
“Vehicles like the Verano and the Encore are the way forward,” Mr. Assimakopoulous said. “The products we’re building for Buick today reinforce the needs of a modern consumer; in many cases a younger consumer.“