In late August, I was invited to a small six member round-table with Susan Docherty, the General Manager of Buick and GMC, and Bryan Nesbitt, the General Manager of Cadillac. We talked about the GM Customer Event (that I attended in Detroit), GM’s brand positioning and how GM is listening (finally) to customers. Susan Docherty - General Manager of Buick and GMC The meeting was held during the dealers conference in Dallas and the other members of the panel were journalists from regional papers. I suppose I was the "forum guy" that so many big companies are just now starting to wake up and court (GM clearly is) even over and above traditional media. I walked into the meeting with some knowledge of the current mass-vehicle GM lineup for 2010. You know, the trucks, the cars, the crossovers, the SUVs and of course the Chevy Volt. However, to be honest, I didn't know a whole lot about what makes Buick tick. In my research I was startled by the fact that Buick only currently offers three products. Really, only three? Given that, it's a natural question to think that Buick is winding down. Is Buick headed to the same fate as Pontiac, Oldsmobile, or even Plymouth? Is Buick just another rebadge with different color trim, seats and floormats, or is something much different? If it does survive, how does it move forward and thrive? Here's the discussion we had and some of my thoughts. Culture Change - Customers First at GM Susan started off by discussing the Detroit GM Product and Technology Customer Event (see: Invited to GM) that I went to and how the GM culture was in the process of changing to meet customer needs ... by talking to customers first and foremost. 'What changes, where?' you might ask. Well, for the first time in the fifty-plus year history of the design center in Warren, regular customers were allowed access into this special place to see how the design process worked for future products. This area had only been reserved in the past for big-wigs. huh, I guess I didn't know how cool it was to be up there! Bryan quipped, "You REALLY had to know someone to get in there," speaking of the way that GM had worked in the past. Some might say that this is a fairly easy curtain to open up - selecting a few customers to bring to Detroit. I say that it looks much deeper than that - this is an outward sign of inward change. GM had a serious wake-up call to find a solution to not let this happen again. Byran Nesbitt - the General Manager of Cadillac. Bryan designed or contributed to vehicles such as the Chevy HHR, Buick Enclave, Chevy Impala and the Chrysler PT Cruiser. Moreover, the driving event at the proving grounds sought to get feedback directly from Joe Customer. One-hundred people were given the keys to all of the new launch products and drove the proving grounds with management members riding shotgun. This gave them a direct method of feedback and I'll testify that they were in-fact taking notes on what we said. For example, Sue Wilson, who oversees the crossover platforms like the Equinox, asked a lot of questions when I drove with her in the Equinox. Gary Arvan, the chief engineer for the Duramax, took plenty of notes as well in the Express van test-drive we did. Fritz Henderson and Bob Lutz were walking around as well. What's perhaps most important to this new paradigm is that the customers came the day before the journalists, which the press didn't care for much. GM did this on purpose, to be cusomter focuses, they wanted to hear from us first. Moreover, GM's pretty clever idea of intiving heavy Social Media using customers was a very good idea. I've long been critical of GM's poor use of social media channels and I was very surprised to see them go down this path. "That's all good and well, but what does that have to do with Buick?" Well, I'm glad you asked. Taking in Feedback from Customers and Making Decisions BUICK ANTHEM (DOA - 2009) While inside the Buick design center in Warren during the customer event, we saw what was to become the Buick Anthem. Ok, guess what? It was a rebaged Saturn Vue. Everyone said it was a Saturn Vue. It looked like a Vue, it walked/talked/quacked like a Vue. Someone even called it the "Vuick" crossover. Ha ha, big laughs. This was lambased over the social media networks and was talked about quite a bit, someone even called it "hideous". After the showcase with customers ended and GM started to gather and compile the feedback they received, they made the decision to kill the Buick Anthem that same week "in about eight minutes." This process could have taken months before at considerable expense with multiple teams in different locations running tests .... a large process. Susan Docherty explained, "We were going to take the Saturn Vue, re-do the interior of that product, redo the front-end, some of the lamps ... and make that product the Buick Anthem." The consensus from the customers? They looked at the products, the future designs and said "that one doesn't fit." and GM listened and they killed it. The Anthem was designed to help GM in a couple of areas. First, it was slated to have the Plug-in Hybrid-Electric Vehicle Technology planned for the Saturn Vue, but now that Saturn is going to Penske they needed to put that technology somewhere inside a GM vehicle for the process of learning. Plus, they need a midsize crossover on the same level of the GM Theta platform Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain, but don't want a simple rebadge either getting back into the same category confusion as before. So, the question remains - what does Buick put in that slot? LIGHT LINEUP FOR 2010 – Three offerings 2010 Buick Enclave - The best full-size Crossover package from GM? The 2010 Buick Lineup consists of the GM Lambda-platform Enclave, the Epsilon II Lacrosse and the H-body Lucerne. Yup, that’s it folks, not all that many categories filled in on the automotive scorecard. Is that enough to drive a customer base to dealerships? Especially considering how GM had been moving Buick/Pontiac/GMC together for so long and Pontiac is winding down. Looking forward to 2011? Earlier in the year there was a much longer list of vehicles that were planned for 2011 or later launches. This did include a new subcompact Skyhawk (a little sportier than the new Chevy Viva), a new compact Skylark (upscale from the Cruze), a compact Sports coupe Reatta (former Pontiac Sky?), the new Buick Regal, a midsize sports coupe with the Grand National, a new fullsize Park Avenue, and a new compact crossover Buick Rendevous. What’s survived the last six months? It looks like only the Buick Regal will be moved forward with from this group according to GM. That dramatic paring back is as significant as it is dramatic and now I see what they saw as quick and easy in the Saturn Vue rebadge offering. There are plans for other vehicles in the hopper for a new mid-size and compact sedan (which I saw in mock-up form in Detroit), I guess we’ll see what those look like as they take shape. THE FUTURE? I guess time will tell how the market accepts the small Buick lineup. The brand name is strong and universally well-known, most companies would kill for that, but is that enough in the big-box world that we live in today? I suppose we’ll see over the next year how well differentiated Buick can be from the competition and from big-brother Chevy.