Wealthy Americans planning to purchase a new car wouldn’t even consider a Buick—a car that, to them, symbolizes the middle class and Gramps and Gran. Meanwhile, in China, Buicks trump GM’s Cadillac, and compete with Mercedes, BMW, and Audi as top luxury brands.
The many complex and nuanced American automobile stereotypes don’t translate across the Pacific. The blossoming Chinese luxury market offers automobile dealers a chance to market their products without the weight of Westernized history and prejudice toward certain models. In China, this means phenomena like a stretch-model Buick for high-end customers… and a price hike in the American “hillbilly muscle” Camaro.
General Motors’ 2009 Camaro will make its Chinese debut at the Shanghai Auto Show this April. The Camaro V6, in the Chinese market, will run at about $76,000—close to three times the price in the U.S. General Motors is relying on more than just Chinese ignorance of American car buyers’ auto attitudes for this status increase for the Camaro. The 2007 film Transformers featured a Camaro as main character Bumblebee—creating a global media image that may well bump its status up a notch to Chinese consumers. Add a new Chinese name—“Ke Mei Luo,” a transliteration of the American word—and GM hopes to capitalize on a huge market of unprejudiced and well-off car buyers.
The incongruence of the Chinese market and the American market has allowed GM to move cars up in status as it can’t do at home. As GM works to shuffle brand status in China, it is helped by the newness of the Chinese luxury market. As China creates its own history in relationship to luxury goods, more unexpected brands may make their way to the top. For example, take the Buick. Americans’ relationship to Buicks say “grandparents.” But in pre-revolutionary China, the emperor was chauffeured in a Buick. It’s a Chinese brand association that may never die.
It’s possible that the companies that move most quickly to build a product in China will end up as the real winners, regardless of the state of their brand in the United States. Projections for the Chinese market include triple-digit growth in the luxury market.
So, despite Americans’ views on the matter, General Motors’ Camaro upscale looks like a smart move. In a new—and huge—market like China, anything is possible.