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Buick has a long and prestigious history. The brand is credited with various innovations, and a century ago, it was the best-selling car in the United States. However, Buick is a far cry from its heyday. It barely survived after GM declared bankruptcy in 2009 during the financial crisis. Also, Buick is widely perceived as an “old-fashioned” brand that’s out of step with the times. While Buick is dying in America, it’s a completely different story in China. In China, many people love Buick cars. Take a closer look to find out why.

Front view of Buick Envision and Chinese flag, highlighting why Buick is dying in America, but loved in China
Buick Envision and Chinese flag | Buick; Yan Ke via Unsplash

Despite its shift toward crossovers and SUVs, Buick is still struggling in America. Many automotive experts criticize the brand for a decline in quality in recent years. The brand also suffers from the “twin vehicle” practice, in which GM uses a different brand name for nearly the same vehicle. An example of this is the Buick Encore and the Chevy Trax.

Across the world in China, though, Buick is loved by many people. In fact, one of the reasons why Buick survived the financial crisis is because of the brand’s immense popularity in China. 

As the world’s largest automotive market, the importance of China to Buick can’t be overstated. In China, Buick is considered an elite and exclusive brand. According to CNBC, in 2018, over 80% of Buick’s global sales were in China, with over one million units sold. That sales figure amounts to five times the number of Buicks sold in America (around 200,000 units) during the same period. 

Furthermore, in China, Buick outsells all other U.S automakers. Additionally, Buick is one of the best-selling automotive brands overall in China. 

Reasons why Buick cars are loved and so popular in China

Buick car outside showroom in China, highlighting why Buick is dying in America, but loved in China
Buick vehicle parked outside showroom in China | Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

There are multiple and varied reasons why China loves Buick. The unique status of the American automaker in the Asian country also goes back many decades. Reasons include:

  • Buick was the preferred car for famous Chinese political figures in the early- and mid-20th century.
  • Partnership with a local Chinese manufacturer in the 1990s
  • Buick caters to the unique preferences of Chinese car buyers

Buick was the preferred car for famous Chinese political figures

In the early- and mid-20th century, Buick was the preferred car for many famous Chinese political figures. This includes Sun Yat Sen, one of the founding fathers of modern China, as well as Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China. The first impression of the automotive brand for many Chinese people was seeing elite political figures driving around in luxurious Buick cars in the 1950s. That created a lasting impression, which stuck — and continued to modern times.

Partnership with a local Chinese manufacturer

Another reason for Buick’s success in China is its strategic partnership with a local China manufacturer. In the 1990s, the Chinese automotive market was still in its infancy. However, Buick gave it a boost with the partnership, which included producing new vehicles that stood out from competitors. This also created a lasting impression on Chinese consumers. 

Additionally, Buick has a partnership with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC). Over the years, SAIC has pushed Buick and GM to produce high-quality cars. As a result, the quality of Chinese Buicks is better than in America or anywhere else in the world. 

Buick caters to the unique preferences of Chinese car buyers

For any company to make inroads and achieve success in an international market, it’s crucial to offer products that address the unique needs and desires of the local population. And Buick has done an outstanding job of doing this, as it produces vehicles that cater to the unique preferences of Chinese car buyers.

For example, while minivans are not as popular anymore in the U.S. — in China, they are often the vehicle of choice for powerful executives. Chinese minivans, with their spaciousness and luxurious amenities, have an almost “limousine-like status.” As a result, Buick offers luxurious minivans that are some of the brand’s most marque vehicles in the country. 

Additionally, Buick has successfully marketed its cars to younger Chinese car buyers. In China, the average age of Chinese Buick buyers is 35, which is around half the age of the average Buick buyer in the U.S. Also, many of Buick’s advertisements in China are distinctive. They often have a futuristic look and feature young and wealthy people. 

Is it risky for Buick to rely on the Chinese market?

Buick is a beloved and successful brand in China. This success can be credited to it historically being the car of choice for famous Chinese political figures — as well as local partnerships and catering to the unique preferences of Chinese car buyers. However, Buick’s considerable reliance on the Chinese market comes with a risk — both financially and ethically.

There is the questionable ethics of doing business in a country with significant human rights concerns. This includes the suppression of religious and cultural freedoms in Tibet following the 1950-1951 invasion, which killed over one million Tibetans — 20% of the country’s population at the time.

During the invasion and in subsequent years, the Chinese military destroyed most of the country’s 6,000+ Buddhist temples. Merely holding a photo of the Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning exiled spiritual leader of Tibet — is illegal, with “offenders” arrested and sent to prison.

There are also accusations of genocide against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, with possibly one million or more people imprisoned in state-sponsored “re-education camps.” Additional concerns include the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, disregarding international maritime borders with other Asian countries, and the sensitive situation with Taiwan.

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As many global companies have already learned, it doesn’t take much to quickly face boycotts in China if running afoul of the Chinese government and Chinese consumers. For example, several years ago, in an inspirational Instagram post, Mercedes-Benz quoted the Dalai Lama. This caused a big uproar in China, and the automaker faced a potential boycott. In response, Mercedes-Benz apologized to Chinese consumers in a subsequent Instagram post.

However, many companies are realizing that doing business in China is not worth the risk. For example, in the past, movie studios would spend millions of dollars modifying films to meet the requirements of Chinese censors. Within the last couple of years, though, they aren’t doing this as much anymore — notably with Paramount refusing to remove the Taiwanese flag from Tom Cruise’s iconic bomber jacket in the Top Gun sequel. 

Will Buick be successful in America again?

With regard to the risk of doing business in China, it remains to be seen if Buick will change course. However, the brand seems to be taking some of the lessons it learned from the Chinese market by applying them to America. For example, Buick first released the Envision compact SUV in China before importing it to the U.S. Also, Buick has plans to go all-electric by 2030.

We’ll have to see if the love that Buick now enjoys in China will someday return to America.