Automakers are always chasing the fountain of youth. But in recent years, marketing to the under-30 crowd has gotten trickier.
Twentysomethings are tired of being targeted, said Janine Lopia no Misdom, a partner in Sputnik Inc., a New York firm that specializes in youth research. They've been marketed to so heavily in the past several years that advertising rarely engages them.
One mistake car advertisers make is usin g flashy commercials with an MTV look of fast-moving shots and hip music, she said. 'MTV-looking ads are almost old already,' Misdom said, adding that this group wants information and honesty, not in-your-face ads.
'You don't have to talk to them in a special way,' Misdom said. Advertisers should avoid the words 'extreme,' 'cool' or 'radical.'
Sputnik talked one-on-one with 150 young consumers in August. Among other things, they were asked to na me their favorite commercials in any category. Only one auto commercial surfaced: Volkswagen of America's 'Synchronization' Jetta spot by Arnold Communications in Boston. It shows a twentysomething couple driving a Jetta on Bourb on Street in New Orleans while events outside the car match the rhythm of music playing inside the car.
VW tries to keep its advertising simple and somewhat intellectual, said Liz Vanzura, advertising dir ector. It took people a few times watching the Jetta spot to figure out the music jibed with the beat of street happenings, she said. 'We let them figure it out, and they feel smart when they do.'
VW doesn't look at competitors' advertising. 'We try to have our own advertising style,' Vanzura said.
The carmaker's research of consumers between ages 18 and 30 revealed they 'hate blatant commercialization,' Vanzura said. 'Our approach to marketing to t hese people is the unmarketing approach.'
VW markets to a young-at-heart attitude rather than an age group. The Jetta and Golf are popular with college students, although the median age of owners of those two cars is 31, she said . VW was the third-most-popular brand in the United States among 18-to-34-year-old new- vehicle buyers, according to Polk Co. in Detroit. (See chart on Page 38.)
IS PRICE KEY TO SUCCESS?
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. and Ford Mo tor Co. are in the middle of major ad launches for new small cars aimed at 18- to 29-year-olds. Toyota is introducing the Echo; Ford Division, the Focus. Both automakers first spent months researching how to reach young buyers.
Toyota ranked 17th-most-popular with 18- to 34-year-olds; and Ford brand was 12th, Polk data show.
Toyota is trying to duplicate its success in the late 1960s when baby boomers bonded with the company's small cars. The boomers have stayed loyal to Toyota. 'It's time for us to bond with the next generation as we did before,' said Jim Press, executive vice president of Toyota. He said the 'best part' about the Echo is its $9,995 base price, which offers a ` `great value' and costs about $2,000 less than the Focus. 'Making our products affordable is the key to the youth market. That's how we did it in the '60s.'
But car ads touting low prices don't necessarily connect with young b uyers, said David Watkins, CEO of Icon Lifestyle Marketing Ltd., a marketing and promotions firm in New York specializing in the urban youth market.
'If a car costs $10,000, you should market it like it costs $50,000' to reach status-conscious young buyers, he added. 'You're talking about kids who grew up buying $140 Michael Jordan shoes, so it's not about the price, it's about the status attached to it.'
Honda's 'upscale sort of marketing' for the Civic has helped the small car's popularity with young buyers, Watkins said. Sometimes, status-conscious youths prefer to buy used luxury vehicles rather than new, lower-priced vehicles. For example, Watkins said it's not unusual for him to see people in their mid-20s in Brooklyn, N.Y., driving a used Mercedes-Benz or Lexus.
Honda was the sixth-most-purchased brand by 18-to-34-year-old buyers, Polk says. Lexus ranked No. 31; Mercedes ranked No. 29.
LO OKING FOR INDIVIDUALITY
Affordability is a common issue for young buyers. Subcompact cars match young buyers' affordability levels, but the category generally has boring styling, said Dan Gorrell, a vice president at consumer researcher Strategic Vision Inc. in San Diego. 'Young buyers prefer cars that are emotionally compelling, and styling is a key part of that. Boring design is not going to make it with people who need a sense of being different.'
The original Plymouth and Dodge Neon in 1994 had some styling benefits, Gorrell said. Plus, the advertising from BBDO Worldwide's Southfield, Mich., office created a friendly and approachable personality with the word 'Hi.'
The big ger, restyled, more powerful 2000-model Neon moved up market and BBDO's advertising in March was more sophisticated. Gorrell said the ads and product changes took the personality out of the car.
'The biggest problem in the subcom pact category is companies' failure to get past the notion that small cars are a compromise,' Gorrell said. The cars have to be presented as aspirational, or highly desirable.
The Dodge brand does better than Plymouth with younger buyers, Polk data show.
GO WHERE THE TARGET IS
Ford and Toyota have extensive plans to display their new cars at youth-oriented events and places, including college campuses and concerts. The two cars also are getting traditi onal media backing on TV and magazines.
The Echo is getting a big push from promotions and events because the target 'spends less time with traditional media' than older buyers, Press said.
The car, for example, is a featured v ehicle for Toyota's sponsorship of Sports & Social Clubs of the United States, a national organization of sport leagues, community service and travel clubs with some 500,000 members.
Toyota wants to woo Generation X, or those born between 1965 and 1979, and what it calls the Net Generation, also called echo boomers, born between 1980 and 1994. The company predicts by 2010, 123 million Americans will be under age 30.
That's bigger than the current baby bo omer segment of 77 million.
J.D. Power and Associates of Agoura Hills, Calif., estimates Gen Xers will represent between a quarter and a third of new vehicle buyers by 2005.
Julie Roehm, brand manager of the Focus, said she's tr ying to attract 21-to-29-year-old consumers with Focus advertising and all communications. The target audience is into individualism and personalization, she added.
That's why Ford offers several nonfactory personalization packages to Focus buyers. The professional package includes a workstation and an illuminated notepad holder on the instrument panel.
EVEN YOUNGER TARGETS
Roehm said consumers develop brand loyalties between ages 12 and 15.
That's why c ar companies approach even younger buyers. General Motors, for example, sponsors junior sports leagues, such as the U.S. Figure Skating Association. The carmakers hope to build a positive brand image that will stick with the youngsters until they're ready to buy a vehicle.
Earlier this year, Toyota launched its first ad campaign to teens between ages 13 and 18. The all-print push from Toyota's ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles, broke in teen magazine s such as Teen People and Young Money.
As part of the Echo launch, Toyota is the cover sponsor of the Student Planner, a new, annual scheduling booklet distributed to more than 1 million students at more than 200 high schools this fall, said Jerry Rakfeldt, account supervisor at Saatchi & Saatchi Los Angeles.
Even high school kids are not too young for auto marketers nowadays.