Thursday, June 21, 2018

Growing Brands: Be a Buick, Not an Oldsmobile

Every company, large and small, that has enjoyed some extended success has the same problem:  staying relevant over time as generations discover new tastes and ideas.  No one can afford to become "yesterday's news", "outdated",  or otherwise irrelevant.

But regenerating your brand image is no guarantee.  The desire to reach out to new, usually younger, customers doesn't mean they're going to bite.

Exhibit A:  Oldsmobile
One of the original American auto brands, Oldsmobile was founded in 1897.  Olds enjoyed success decade after decade into the mid 1980s.  Appealing to new generations wasn't a major issue until they ran into new competition from Acura, Lexus, etc.  By this time they had earned the stereotype as an "old people's" car.  Someone took drastic action:  a new campaign centered around a new generation of car buyers.  Tagline:  "This is NOT your father's Oldsmobile!"

Spoiler alert:  the campaign bombed.

The younger buyers Olds was aiming at replied with "Yeah, right, buddy!  Not in my universe!" and sales went nowhere.  To make matters worse, the tried-and-true "old people" that were buying the brand responded with, "Oh, our business isn't important to you anymore?  We'll just take our substantial dollars elsewhere...."  Buick and Lincoln were loving this.

The campaign tanked, even with featured celebrities and Oldsmobile never recovered.  They plodded along for the next 15 years until it folded in 2004.

Speaking of Buick, they're "Exhibit B".
In the beginning of the 21st century, Buick found itself in the same quandry as Olds.  They were stereotyped as the "old people's" car and surviving into the future meant cultivating a younger buyer base.
Buick learned from Oldsmobile's demise and took a different route:  they had a little fun at their own expense.  For your consideration:  "That's not a Buick!"

This one took off.  Two years later the ad industry was buzzing about the success of "That's not a Buick!" campaign.  (Example from AdWeek)

What was different between the two campaigns?

First, the Oldsmobile ad focused on "change" and the subjective anticipation and excitement that goes along with change.  The reason it failed was that it didn't show the younger buyers what the brand was changing *to* and the older buyers were just freaked out.  No sale.

Second, the Buick ad campaign coincided with the introduction of the new Enclave and four other models.  AND - rather than focus on a voice-over narrative of how new it was, they just showed some funny reactions. "I don't see a Buick..."  One of the commercials showed a girl looking for her friend getting into the wrong car.

So Buick used some humor in their approach, but they avoided the idea of "change".  The "older" models, associated with "older" buyers (Skylark, etc) were not mentioned.  No need, because they weren't "changing".  Although some of them (like the Riviera and Park Avenue) were quietly discontinued.  They added something new and invited buyers of all ages to rethink a brand they think they know.

The moral of the story is:  if refreshing your brand means bridging a gap between generations you have to cater to both; or at the very least, avoid the message that one of them is disposable or no longer significant.  Telegraphing that "old people" and their ideas are no longer important is a death sentence. Try avoiding the "change" moniker.  Not all change is good and can be greeted with suspicion.  What are you *adding* that is new?  How does the "new" coexist with the "old"?

Oldsmobile made all the mistakes and they don't exist anymore.  Buick avoided terms and scenarios that threatened their traditional base and the brand is thriving.

Be like Buick.