For years, American rock stars facing declining popularity at home have headed for the greener pastures of Asia, where they could revive their careers and play to throngs of still-adoring fans. (Just Google the phrase "big in Japan.") Now, scores of brands with sagging fortunes in the United States are reinventing themselves as must-have luxury items in the Far East, a strategy they've adopted with particular fervor in the wake of the global economic downturn. They may not play in Peoria anymore, but the better question is this: Can they sell in Shanghai instead?
America's oldest surviving automobile brand, a division of beleaguered General Motors (GM), spent decades establishing a reputation for sensible luxury suitable for retirees and small-town doctors. But in 2005, after years of poor sales, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz famously called Buick a "damaged brand," and speculation was rife that the Detroit auto giant would pull the plug.
Instead, Buick was saved by China, which was nearly a century into a love affair with the venerable make by the time GM reintroduced it there in 1998. According to GM, nationalist hero Sun Yat-sen owned one, and the last emperor Pu Yi's two Buicks were the first cars to enter the Forbidden City in 1924. Zhou Enlai's Buick, reportedly "acquired" from the emperor after the communist takeover, was the late premier's prized possession. Today, Buick is one of China's leading luxury-car brands and a status symbol for the young, upwardly mobile business elite. In 2010, Buick sold more than 550,000 vehicles on the mainland, at least triple what it sold in the United States.