Generation Why: They Can Tell You Don't Get It

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler

“We tried to teach dealers how to calibrate conversations,” Mr. Martin said. “Stop trying to be cool and give them the fist pump. They can tell you don’t get it.

Journalism profs would admonish us for “burying the lede”, or hiding the most important information way down in the story, rather than putting it at the front where it’s easily accessible. Amy Chozick of the New York Times put that gem at the very end of her article on how General Motors is hiring consultants from MTV, including Ross Martin, quoted above, to help their brand connect with young people. Mr. Martin, take your own advice.

Instead, the article opens like this

Ross Martin, 37, is a published poet and a former drummer in an alternative rock band. Wearing Nike high tops and loose-fitting jeans, he is the kind of figure who wouldn’t attract a second glance on the streets of Brooklyn, where he lives.

37 years old is hardly over the hill, but is a 37 year-old really in touch with what people born in 1996 really like? Do they even know what a cassette tape is. Martin, meanwhile, was a “drummer in an alternative rock band”. Nirvana is now played on my classic rock station, and GM wants him to sell cars to a generation that thinks “cooking” is a hip-hop dance, not a reason to go to the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market.

He and his team are trying to help General Motors solve one of the most vexing problems facing the car industry: many young consumers today just do not care that much about cars.

False. The article’s commenters cite everything from expense, to the environment, to social media as reasons why youth have abandoned the automobile. The truth is, they never have.Young people care about cars. Yes, we are broke, gas is more expensive, we care about the environment even though we consume, consume, consume like never before. We still need cars. We still don’t like taking transit, if we can at all. If one of our friends has a car, we will ask them for a lift home, no matter how much pro-cycling-and-walkable-cities gospel we preach. If we’re going to buy a car, it better be worth it. Worth the expense of and hassle. A Sonic is a nice car. It’s not worth it.

Young people are buying used S2000s. Young people are awaiting the launch of the Scion FR-S like it’s The Second Coming. Young people would do terrible things for an Audi R8. Young people do terrible things, financially speaking, to lease a BMW 328i or Infiniti G37 or Mercedes C-Class. But, here’s the kicker. Young people do not want any part of what’s being sold to them as affordable transportation

Last summer, Mr. Martin and his team temporarily transformed part of the G.M. lobby into a loftlike space reminiscent of a coffee shop in Austin or Seattle, with graffiti on the walls and skateboards and throw pillows scattered around. As part of its “Millennial-Con,” Scratch brought in viral video stars like Sergio Flores, known as the Sexy Sax Man, a musician with a mullet and a denim jacket.

Do they know that a lot of young people like the Cruze precisely because it doesn’t look like it starts at $16,800? Don’t believe me? Look at the Cruze sales numbers. Even better than the Focus. Luxury goods have trickled so far down the social ladder that even a girl who works retail for minimum wage can buy a $900 Louis Vuitton purse. I said “can buy” not “afford” so don’t worry about a $12,000 Spark. Make something that looks like an Audi S5, base it on the Cruze platform (go ahead, it’s ok, most of them won’t know, and the ones that do will be go back to playing Gran Turismo anyways) and you’re half way there. The Code and Tru concepts were a step in the right direction. Don’t listen to the critics. They’re old men. They just want a Cruze diesel wagon with a 6-speed sitck.

They studied a collage loaded with images of hip products like headphones created by Dr. Dre, a tablet computer and a chunky watch. The board inspired new Chevrolet colors, like “techno pink,” “lemonade” and “denim,” aimed at “a 23-year-old who shops at H&M and Target and listens to Wale with Beats headphones,” said Rebecca Waldmeir, a color and trim designer for Chevrolet. This rainbow of youthful hues will be available on the Spark this summer.

Young people would rather get herpes than go to the “Sonic Lounge” at the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas. Ask Ford how their “Fiesta Movement” worked out, without Ford mentioning how many “social media impressions” the car got. Car companies that indulge in these silly campaigns are like an obese person trying to lose weight by switching from Coke to fruit juice when what’s really needed is hard physical exercise and most importantly, self-discipline.

If I had the secret to marketing to youth, I’d probably flying into Mustique right now. But I do. Ready for it? We want to buy cars marketed to older, more succesful people. We always have, we always will. Ask a young person,full of ambition and promise, trying to get ahead in the world with a crappy job that doesn’t pay much, what car they prefer – as in, what car suits their self-image better; a Hyundai Veloster, or a Hyundai Elantra. One looks like a child’s toy. The other looks like a Mercedes-Benz if you squint just a little. And yes, I’ve done this field test many times before. I know a few people with Elantras, Sonatas and even Rios. Nobody I know has bought a Veloster.

GM, it’s a good thing that young people don’t read newspapers and this article appeared in the New York Times. Your target demo is already making fun of this article, your marketing people and your lame efforts on Facebook. Vehicle lead times and social trends move at such different paces that they will never intersect and you will never be able to catch them. Stop this silly endeavor. Fire the marketers. Let the engineers and product types do their thing. We can tell you don’t get it.

Derek Kreindler
Derek Kreindler

More by Derek Kreindler

Join the conversation
4 of 152 comments
  • FJ60LandCruiser FJ60LandCruiser on Mar 24, 2012

    Once young people actually move out of their parents' houses, get real jobs, stop whining about inequities, and start to have families of their own they'll suddenly realize that they actually need a car and not a carbon neutral politically affrmative renewable city center transportation idea. So they will buy a Camcord, or generic "active lifestyle" CUV like every other drone in America. Marketing to a youth market that has no money and no interest in cars is a waste of time and money and no hip young marketing "experts" will change that.

  • Luke42 Luke42 on Mar 24, 2012

    I think I've put my finger on the real issue here. Derek has mentioned it directly in several of these editorials, but maybe I can put it in to more context so that most people will "get it". A major thing that's changed in our society since I was a kid is that TV and popular music aren't as culturally important as they were in the 1980s and 1990s. The Internet allows all of the "with it" people to pursue our interests, rather than be subjected to the same crappy entertainment as everyone else. People who are just a little bit younger than I am have never known the unified/uniform media environment that thankfully started to whither and die in the late 1990s. So now, targeting "Generation Why" as if they *wanted* to be a unified cohort with a uniform culture is a mindbogglingly fundamental mistake. Assuming that they all want to be hipsters, fraternity/sorority boys and girls, grunge rockers, coffee shop patrons, celebutantes, or whatever the hell label you want to put on them just shows that "you don't get it". A better approach would be to look at the market by interests, culture, and income -- and mostly forget age. If you want to sell my 20-something lesbian DINK sister a car, you'll need to find a car that's good for outdoor activities, good hauling her band's stuff around, reliable, and has less environmental impact than most. If you want to sell my 20-something conservative rural step-brother-in-law a car, you'd best take him to the F-150 booth and start figuring out how to finance a $40k Cowboy Cadillac on a $40k/year salary. If you want to sell my sister-in-law a car, you need to find a car that looks stylish in big-city parking garages and where the battery won't run down if she forgets to drive for a few weeks. None of these folks care what the hipsters and aging grunge/punk rockers in Seattle are doing, and none of them aspire to be one -- they're just too damn busy doing what *they * want to do. Their role models come from within the half-dozen communities that each one is a part of. If you just want to sell cars, the easy way is to just make a variety of excellent vehicles and let them pick the one that suits their needs. Or, you could learn about thousands of subcultures, and learn about the needs of each one. You'd also need to learn how to respect each and every community on their own terms (rather than screaming at them with advertising). These are both big undertakings. Just building great cars is probably a lot less work.

    • See 1 previous
    • on Mar 26, 2012

      Yep, you hit the nail on the head... just market the car itself. Build a killer car and market it. Use younger models in the ads if you want to market it to younger people. Market the car... right after you finish building a car that's actually worth marketing.

  • James Hendricks The depreciation on the Turbo S is going to be epic!
  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.