Lenders seek bonds with the young and savvy

“It’s the coolest way to make a payment,” said Mercedes-Benz Financial’s Andreas Hinrichs about the lender’s iPhone app.
Auto lenders are learning that hip teens and 20-something consumers aren't really so hip, except in how they communicate.

In fact, young buyers on average have fairly traditional values toward purchases in general and cars in particular, says Scott Hess, vice president of insights for the Chicago market research firm TRU.

"These guys are practical," Hess says. "When they consider something, their question is if this thing practically improves things so that they can be more effective at doing something. That's not hip and cool, but effective and savvy."

As a result, lenders must devise new ways to do business with young vehicle buyers.

Surprisingly, TRU research shows that shoppers in their teens and 20s put a practical attribute, fuel economy, at No. 1 on their list of purchase considerations -- ahead of topics that are often associated with young buyers, such as environmental friendliness or the need to own the "latest and greatest" item, Hess says.

"It's cool to be a smart consumer," he adds.

Products such as the Nissan Cube and Toyota's Scion brand are aimed squarely at young buyers. Scion owners have the youngest average age in the industry at 38, says Karen Ideno, chief marketing officer at Toyota Financial Services. She says Scion has visited college campuses to dole out free coffee and Scion information as part of its marketing efforts.

More touch points

Lenders can't match a new car or an entire youth-oriented brand in terms of youth-friendliness, but they can make themselves more user-friendly for young owners..

Lenders especially need to offer multiple points of access, Hess says. Young buyers want to make payments, check balances, get information and ask questions when, where and how they want. That could be online, on the phone or with smart phones.

Ideno says Toyota Financial has 1.75 million registered users of all ages for its online service center. She says 46 percent of Toyota Financial customers of all ages pay their monthly bills online.

Michael McConnell, Nissan Motor Acceptance Corp.'s vice president of sales, marketing and corporate planning, says that since it was launched in 2006, the company's online site has grown to more than 800,000 registered users.

McConnell says the financial company is an important touch point for customers because of their monthly bills. "In the course of a five-year loan, we're going to talk to that customer more than anybody else" within Nissan, he says.

Nissan and Scion are both keen to reach young buyers, and both brands have small "college graduate" rebates and delayed-first-payment offers.

But Ideno and McConnell also say their companies don't lower their approval standards for young buyers with "thin files" who have little or no established credit. "People at this age often have parents" who can act as co-signers, McConnell says.

iPhone app

Andreas Hinrichs, vice president of marketing at Mercedes-Benz Financial, says his company launched an iPhone app last fall that allows customers to pay bills, check their account status and get information such as the location of the nearest Mercedes-Benz dealership.

"It's the coolest way to make a payment," he says.

Hinrichs says 27 percent of Mercedes-Benz owners have an iPhone, although he says he could not break that down by age group.

The iPhone app was announced Oct. 5. As soon as it was turned on, but before it was announced that day, payments started coming by iPhones, including at least one from a past-due customer, Hinrichs says.

As of mid-February the company was approaching 10,000 downloads of the new app, says Jack Ferry, a Mercedes-Benz Financial spokesman.

Five years ago, CarMax switched its marketing media mix to put the Internet at No. 1, in part to attract younger buyers, says Rob Mitchell, vice president of consumer finance.

"We can't control the product pipeline," Mitchell says. "We don't manufacture it; we can only control the ... information and educational material."

You can reach Jim Henry at autonews@crain.com

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