To compete in the intense US auto market, GM and Ford are seeking to revitalize the Buick and Mercury brands. John N. Frank finds that might be harder than they think.The Chicago Auto Show is an event where automakers love to tout their newest model cars, trucks, SUVs, and minivans. The show attracts more consumers than any other in the US, so it's become a major platform for starting buzz about new models among the buying public. But at this year's show, General Motors and Ford weren't just unveiling new products, they were also talking about revitalizing two long-established brands that have fallen on hard times - GM's Buick and Ford's Mercury. GM held a press preview for its new Buick LaCrosse sedan, trumpeting it as the first of the new Buicks that will tickle buyers' fancy. Gary Cowger, president of GM North America, focused on the fact that the auto giant planned to invest $3 billion in revitalizing Buick over a five-year period, rolling out a string of new models that would position Buick as "America's premium luxury" brand. The LaCrosse is being positioned to replace two models Buick will drop - the Regal and the Century. Buick is moving a bit upscale as it positions itself just below GM's Cadillac brand. Mercury came in for a mention from none other than Ford Motors scion William Clay Ford Jr., the company's current CEO, who told a luncheon that Mercury "got lost" over the past five to six years and that he now wants the company to focus on creating an image for the brand. Ford had moved Mercury to California a few years back, hoping it could absorb the West Coast culture and create new models that would appeal to younger buyers. But now Mercury has been moved back to Detroit, where Ford can give it its full attention. Mercury unveiled its new Montego at the show, a midsize sedan that likely will find itself competing not only with foreign imports, but also with Buick's LaCrosse. The path ahead Neither Ford nor GM has an easy job ahead of it when it comes to rebuilding two brands they've allowed to rust over the last decade. Mercury's US sales fell almost 25% last year compared with the year before and continued to slide - down 18% - in January. Buick's sales fell 22% last year. "They're largely irrelevant brands," says Paul Eisenstein, publisher of TheCarConnection. com and a longtime Detroit-based auto writer. "I can think of few other brands that will be as difficult to revive as Buick and Mercury. That doesn't mean they can't be brought back." Each brand has been talking about attracting younger buyers. But rather than merely look at the demographics of potential buyers, each brand needs to focus on lifestyle connections they can make with new consumers. "Demographics is old school from a brand equity point of view," says Bill Snyder, marketing director with AcuPoll Research, a brand-building and research firm in Cincinnati. "What a car stands for is highly an extension of [the buyer's] self" and goes beyond demographics, he insists. Buick has already begun trying to position itself as an upscale premium brand. Last year, it began meeting with the auto press and focused on the brand's 100-year heritage in a national tour, says Peter Ternes, director of communications for the Buick Motor division at GM. "The Buick name and brand had been successful multiple times in the past," Ternes explains. PR last year centered on the message that new products would make the brand successful in the future. PR efforts this year will stress the design of new Buicks, and the brand's quality and reliability, says Ternes. Buick will continue to harken back to its glory days. "Where we're going is not that far from where we've been," Ternes says. Product PR efforts with the influential auto press will revolve around the LaCrosse, a new minivan and the Rainier SUV. The broadening product lineup will allow Buick to reach out to younger buyers. "We've basically been a four-sedan division for a long time," Ternes notes. The brand has been encouraged by favorable reviews for the Rainier in the auto press. "The first people you have to convince are the auto writers," Ternes says. Buick will continue using spokesman Tiger Woods for PR opportunities and leveraging its connection with professional golf to craft an upscale image. The LaCrosse seems to be a solid car that might have sold well in a less competitive market before foreign imports became a major factor in US auto sales, says Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of Edmunds.com, an auto website. But with automakers rushing out new products now, "good isn't good enough," he says. Buick is emphasizing how much effort it put into making LaCrosse a quiet ride, but that message is unlikely to reach beyond core Buick buyers of today, says Brauer. Buick actually held up introduction of the LaCrosse while styling guru Bob Lutz insisted on design changes. Buick officials have let it be known that future new models will have styling that's edgier than the sedate looking LaCrosse. The model's name brings to mind the rough-and-tumble sport of lacrosse, a seeming effort to reach active-lifestyle buyers, but the car's style is too staid for such buyers, contends Stephen Cohen, cofounder of Epic Brands, a New York firm that creates ancillary products to enhance brand development. Eisenstein also sees a disconnect between Buick using Tiger Woods in its messaging and the design of its cars. "Tiger Woods could work if the product is right," he says. "It's too early to tell; they don't have the product right now." In that sense, Buick is where Cadillac was several years ago - talking about its new image before it has the product to back up the claims. Cadillac has been successful in revitalizing its brand image because new models - most carrying highly stylized, futuristic looks - backed up the early PR hype that it was changing by using its technology prowess to design hot new luxury cars. Buick will need more than the LaCrosse to convince the influential auto press that it can do the same in the premium category just below Cadillac on the price scale. Says Eisenstein, "Buick needs something that stops you in your tracks." Facing challenges Mercury is still crafting its new positioning. Its PR staff says it is not ready to comment on messaging plans. Efforts to craft a new PR image might not be noticeable until this fall, when the new model year begins. Outsiders say Mercury's big challenge is to change its image as a line of cars that are basically Ford models with a few more frills or different front grills. At the auto show, Mercury officials talked about interior features on new Mercurys. The brand plans a slew of new introductions, but that won't be enough to change consumer perceptions unless they are truly different from Ford models. "There's going to be an awful lot of people who say, 'What do I get out of driving a Mercury?'" says Eisenstein. Some also say that by announcing at the auto show that Ford intends to build a Mercury version of the Ford Freestyle SUV, the firm seems to be undercutting its own efforts to distinguish Mercury from Ford. Ford has two audiences to please with its new Mercury positioning - consumers and its Lincoln/Mercury dealers, notes George Hoffer, an economics professor and auto industry historian at Virginia Commonwealth University. Lincoln dealers cannot survive selling only Lincolns; they need Mercury to round out their product lineup, Hoffer explains. "Dealers demand product," he says. How dealers handle customers will be another aspect of future PR for the brands. Foreign competitors like Lexus and Acura have created upscale dealer experiences for customers that help distinguish them form the competition, says Brauer. Clearly Mercury and Buick have their work cut out for them. Cadillac has shown an auto brand can be revived, but the death of Oldsmobile has shown that sometimes brands can't be brought back in today's competitive US auto marketplace.