LOS ANGELES - Mark Templin is climbing into the sandbox with the kids.
After 15 years at upscale Lexus, rotating through sales, customer service and marketing, Templin recently took charge of Toyota's Scion youth brand.
Former Scion boss Jim Farley, who launched the brand in California in 2003 and took it nationwide last year, was elevated to run Toyota Division's marketing effort.
The two men have contrasting styles. Even at 43, Farley still carries a raffish, smartest-guy-in-the-fraternity mien. It's easy to see how he was accepted at the hip-hop parties that Scion hosted.
Templin, 44, is more polished, his answers to questions more measured than those of off-the-cuff Farley.
But Templin sees his posting as a perfect fit for where Scion is headed. As he sees it, Generation Y wants products and customer service as good as that of Lexus. They just can't afford the Lexus yet. Creating that Lexus aura at Scion is first on Templin's to-do list.
Scion boasts that the demographics of its primary drivers are the youngest in the industry. More than half the owners are under 35 years old.
Target: Ages 11 to 25
In an era of quickly cooling trends, does Templin worry that the buzz already has worn off Scion? Have all the cool kids bought their boxy xBs or zippy tCs? Are they ready to move on to the next big thing? Templin thinks not.
"There still is more demand than supply," he says. "Scion's target audience is 11 to 25 years old, so every year there's a whole new wave of customers that gets old enough to drive."
The proof? At a recent open house, where enthusiasts chilled out at Scion's corporate headquarters and listened to a concert by the alternative-jazz band Dakah Hip-Hop Orchestra, the belle of the ball was 14-year-old Shelby Koshak.
Although Koshak is not old enough to drive, her xB hatchback has thousands of dollars of modifications. She, with generous help from her auto-enthusiast parents, gave it a customized green paint job - matching her eyes - pulled from the Ralph Lauren catalog. The car has carbon fiber everywhere, not to mention three DVD screens, custom upholstery, tuned suspension and a keyhole camera in the tailgate. Oh, and there's nitrous oxide to inject into the intake manifold for speedy getaways.
"The Scion is just so cool. It's a blank slate I can work with. And everybody has a Honda Civic," says Koshak.
What appeals to Scion's buyers is the wealth of customization that Scion offers. Templin compares Scion to Starbucks, which, he says, has nearly 80 million ways to order a coffee drink.
"That's the kind of personalization this generation has grown up with," he says. "There are infinite ways to customize cell phones with wallpaper and ring tones."
Notes from focus groups
Templin already has devoured the notes from focus groups of first-generation Scion owners, looking for what is missing from the current lineup. Scion has 40 accessories and does twice the level of accessory business on a per-car-gross basis than Toyota or Lexus. Templin wants to increase that business.
"They expect luxury at a budget price," he says. "They are asking for more luxury features, seat memory, things like that. But they don't ask us to do the stuff that they do themselves."
Then there's the marketing side. Templin does not plan to mess with success. Forget Monday Night Football; Scion is investing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. When Dodge stepped in as a parking lot sponsor for the bleeding-edge Coachella music festival, Scion walked away, sensing the corporate suits moving in.
Scion has the equivalent of its own record label now, helping struggling musicians get their work heard. All of it comes back to Scion maintaining its street credibility for its core, trendsetting buyers.
Scion sold 99,259 vehicles last year, despite going nationwide in June. This year's full-year sales likely will go well beyond that. Templin sees a near future when Scion will break the 150,000-unit mark. Through May, Scion was well on its way, with 62,003 units sold.
"We're trying to do it the right way," Templin says. "Our customers will tell us if we go too mainstream. They're the ones driving the brand. There still is a huge percentage of the population who doesn't know what Scion is or that it exists. That's fine with me."