Kids just don't imbue cars with the significance that previous generations did. Automotive marketers are working to address a cohort that thinks differently about their wheels.
To the Boomer generation, and arguably to several before it, cars signified attributes like freedom, power, self-worth, and sex appeal. These attributes have been marketing triggers for decades. What's an automotive marketer to do with a 24-year-old who doesn't particularly want or need a car, but if he must have one wants it to be above all practical and thrifty? Oh, and Internet-connected.
The sex appeal that older generations ascribed to their automobiles is as likely in younger people to be signified by portable electronics such as smartphones. And green is sexy, so bicycles -- especially in bike-sharing programs -- and car-sharing arrangements like Zipcar meet with approval.
As for the freedom and sociability that cars once represented -- people in younger generations have found those qualities via the Internet, and they were enjoying them well before their 16th birthdays.
Even before US gasoline prices at the pump were routinely above $3 per gallon (for over a year now), and before the recession, per capita vehicle miles traveled were on the decline in some major urban areas: down 10 percent in Atlanta and 15 percent in Houston from 1995 to 2005. Research by youth marketing firm YPulse "found that about half of college students like to 'nest' in their parked cars, using them as mini mobile apartments for hanging out, listening to music, napping, and eating," according to ClickZ.
The median age of US new-car buyers went up between 2006 and 2010, rising from 50 to 55. And in the 20 years to 2008, the percentage of 16-year-olds licensed to drive dropped from 50 to 35. Drivers not yet 18 years of age operate under many more restrictions (for example, on night-time driving and carrying underage passengers) than Boomers knew at a similar age. ClickZ quotes an Edmunds.com editor: "Teens have to figure out other ways to shop, socialize, and entertain themselves. And they're figuring out that cars aren't indispensable."
Automotive marketers who embrace these trends are having more success. In October General Motors provided a fine example of what not to do: It ran a print ad in college newspapers suggesting that to impress women it is better to drive a car than to ride a bike. A social media firestorm ensued, and GM pulled the ad and apologized.
"Ford is supplying its Focus and Escape vehicles to the Zipcar fleet," according to ClickZ, "and in November 2011 GM partnered with RelayRides to develop peer-to-peer car-sharing via GM's OnStar telematics system."
Kia has enjoyed acclaim for its hamster-themed ads for the Kia Soul, as we discussed last month. The ads don't suggest that the practical, economical Soul is fast, rugged, safe, or agile, as ads in an earlier age might have done; rather, they imply that owning a Soul will put you at the center of your circle's social life.
A Ford ad campaign last month was delivered through the portable devices that automotive watchers say are siphoning off some of the attention that cars once commanded. Ford teamed up with gamemaker Zynga to unveil its 2013 Escape model via the online game, "Words With Friends." The game was available on iPhone and Android devices, as well as on Facebook.
No one knows whether these Millennial trends mark an inflection point in automotive history, or whether an improving economy will eventually usher in a return to the status quo ante. Smart marketers are watching the trends, and marketing cars that meet the current desires, using the social and mobile channels where the younger buyers are found.
— Keith Dawson , Senior Editor, The CMO Site
The CMO Site is an executive social network that provides CMOs and other marketing executives from the world's leading organizations with a real-time, online venue where they can convene to discuss how they're delivering on the most critical marketing priorities. Join us!