Last time on Generation Why, we discussed Chevrolet’s youth-oriented concepts, and how the big problem related to marketing to young people was their poor economic prospects. But what about those that can afford a car? Are “connectivity features” like Toyota’s Entune, really the way forward? What about the good old-fashioned notion of just building a car that people will want?
Having made the mistake of following tech blogs for a few years, it’s safe to assert that tech journalists are just as myopic as auto journalists are prone to be, seeing the world through the lens of a hardcore enthusiast with zero empathy for the average user. And it only gets worse when one reaches the nexus of automobiles and electronics.
Tech enthusiasts/bloggers would have the world believe that everyone is constantly plugged in to every up and coming social network all the time. This is patently false. Twitter has been promoted endlessly for the last few years, but I would estimate that at most 25 percent of my friends have an account, and maybe 5 percent tweet regularly. Sure, if you went to SXSW or CES, everyone would be in their own little social media world, tweeting and “muploading” away, but that’s because of a selection bias, whereby these “early adopters” are jumping on the bandwagon and promoting these social networks in the endless blogosphere echo chamber.
Speaking on the GM concept cars designed for Gen Y, Peter DeLorenzo commented that “…their communication devices are their lives and that over-sharing defines their very existence…” Mr. DeLorenzo is significantly older than I am and perhaps this is how he views us, but I can assert that his idea of Gen Y is false – and if Chevrolet’s presentation was suggesting that, then they are wrong too.
Most people, my demographic included, are huge consumers of social media – but only as a means to an end. We do not define ourselves based on brand allegiance to a particular phone (unless you are
a social leper an insufferable Mac geek), or ignore what’s going on around us by “live-tweeting” an event (a disturbing phenomenon that I’ve seen happen all too often), staring at our phones while ignoring the real action taking place. “Over-sharing”, updating too much on social networking or being too into the use of social media tools in general is distinctly uncool. And the “social media influencers” and power users are very often nerdy, socially awkward borderline Aspergers types who use the internet as a replacement for real human interaction. Twitter, Facebook, text messaging, Pandora, OpenTable, Yelp – all the apps and networks are merely ways to bring about the real end goal; socializing in person. The tech blogger/early adopter crowd suffers from selection bias – they see all their friends and colleagues using every new social network and interacting via computer and naturally assume that everyone is hoping on board, just as we car geeks assume that everyone wants the mythical manual TDI wagon. Empirical evidence tells us otherwise, though if GM consulted with the aforementioned tech bloggers and gadget enthusiasts when they were doing market research, then they were led astray by out-of-touch consultants with poor judgement.
Yes, automobile is no longer a vehicle (no pun intended) for socializing as much as it once was, but largely because of the increased costs, not because cars are considered radioactive, as some empty-headed pundits would have you believe. Cruising around is still a fun past time, but now an act of flagrant profligacy thanks to $4/gallon gasoline prices. In my parents day, taking the car to a diner, and then maybe trying to neck in the backseat was the thing to do. Hanging out at the burger joint used to be the sole social venue, but today there are so many options, from live music to nightclubs to house parties to outdoor activities that sitting around chatting while drinking a shake and leaning on the hood of your car is just a quaint artifact of the Mad Men era. Even if you live in the suburbs or the country, where your options are limited, the mega mall is a one-stop location for social interaction, or you can always stay home and chat online – not to mention, being alone with a member of the opposite sex in your parents house isn’t a social taboo anymore, even if it remains awkward.
A hard and fast rule with Gen Y is that the more a brand attempts to market themselves to this group, the more that Gen Y is repulsed by it. Major “luxury” houses do not appeal to teens and 20-somethings, yet they are the most coveted by this group. For girls, a Coach bag is laughably passe now that they’ve attempted to appeal to the younger crowd with bright patterns and colors – they’ve all moved on to Louis Vuitton or other outrageously expensive brands now that a once affordable but prestigious brand has lost its cachet by trying to market directly. One brand that’s done a great job of marketing indirectly (and becoming cool in the process) is Hyundai. As early as 2007, most of my friends mocked my parents Hyundai Santa Fe as being a “cheap Korean car”. Nowadays, the Genesis Coupe is easily the most coveted affordable car among young men in my peer group, and I know a few people who have bought various Hyundai products (the Veloster, Sonata and Elantra respectively) on the strength of their designs and price points. Hyundai’s ad campaigns are droll and subtle, even with a vehicle like the Veloster that’s ostensibly aimed at young buyers. Hyundai abstains from shots of cool hipsters sipping artistanal coffees or going snow boarding, just the voice of Jeff Bridges making sly quips about the car. To casual observers, the Elantra really does look and feel more upscale than a Cruze (or a Corolla/Civic for that matter). The company seems to be building cars that people from all walks of life would be proud to own and drive, and that image seems to be resonating with a demographic that likes Louis Vuitton purses and Polo shirts, but can’t afford the BMW 328i that goes along with it.
The structural problems I outlined last week, like massive youth unemployment and the rising cost of car ownership, still exist and will continue to be a handicap for automakers. But that shouldn’t bar the OEMs from continuing their pursuit of making good cars. If anything, that should lead to an even greater impetus to simply making good cars. After all, a car is still the most convenient way to bring grocery bags home or get your mountain bike to the trails in the State Park. Most places don’t have adequate infrastructure to make public transit or cycling an option for those that do wish to use them. And even though young people are more environmentally aware, few are principled enough to give up their car to help save the planet. The car isn’t dead for us yet. It’s just what’s out there right now, and what’s on the horizon, that isn’t really doing it. All the window dressing in the world, whether it’s touch screens, app suites or “experiential marketing campaigns” won’t change a thing. If the car is lame, your target demographic will figure it out. Better to build something good and let it stand on its own than try to convince the most cynical and jaded generation that your product is “totally rad, dude!”