|GM 2001 Concepts
GM is Firmly Targeting the Young, Affluent Consumer
General Motors is taking aim at Generation Y with this years portfolio of concept cars. At 70 million strong, the sons and daughters of Americas Baby Boomers represent a huge emerging market even though some of them are still in kindergarten.
The leading edge of this echo boomer generation is just entering their car-buying years, but theyre deciding what they like at a very young age, explained Janet Goings, 41, a portfolio concepts manager who leads one of GMs youth focus teams. These are sophisticated consumers, and if we dont get them to consider us now, getting them later is a lot more difficult.
Get em & Grow em! reads a hand-written sign in the conference room used by the youth focus team Goings heads. The team called iSYS, for innovative Smart Youth Strategy, pulled together to help GM better understand and reach younger buyers.
The first task of iSYS was simply to get a grip on this uniquely diverse and sophisticated group of potential car buyers, now aged 6 to 23. GMs market research is finding that by the time echo boomers emerge from college or high school and actually begin shopping for their first vehicle, their tastes about whats cool and whats uncool have already jelled.
Weve even seen it at 6, 8, 10 years old, said Valerie Cole, 25, an analyst in GMs global market and industry analysis section and a member of the iSYS team. Hence, the focus group research with these pre-drivers can be fascinating and fun. You have to understand that they dont recognize costs: a Lamborghini and a PT Cruiser are on an equal footing, Goings added. And we always hear about flying cars, too. Some of the stuff they experience virtually is very sophisticated and exotic. Theyre very comfortable thinking about the future.
There wont be any exotic flying cars in the GM portfolio anytime soon, but the theme that ties together the seven concept cars for 2001 is youth. Though the offerings from several of the GM brands couldnt truly be considered starter cars, they are all significantly more youthful than their brand tradition and offer aspirational appeal that should inspire the young consumer to set his or her sights on owning a car like that someday, explained Ed Welburn, executive director of GMs Corporate Brand Character Center.
The concept vehicles arent all gauged to 18-year-olds, Welburn acknowledged. But the Buick, for the first time in a long time, has a lot of young people standing around it saying Wow. Thats a pretty cool car. Indeed, that kind of aspirational appeal in the 1950s is what gave Buick such a firm hold on the consumers who are now in their 60s, Buicks primary customers today.
The difficulty that GM and all carmakers are facing is that these young drivers and pre-drivers would prefer not to be seen in a lightweight little starter car if they only have $12,000 to spend. "With that money, theyd prefer to have a more prestigious used car like a small BMW," said Garrick Zack, a 25-year-old designer in GMs Los Angeles design studio and member of the iSYS team.
The growth of car leasing in the American market has created a large supply of reliable used cars in excellent condition, especially among the more prestigious brands that Generation Y drivers aspire to. In todays 16-25 age group, 80 percent of the cars being purchased are used vehicles.
But, tellingly, the top 10 used cars being purchased are quite similar to the top 10 new cars. Apparently whats cool is cool, in spite of the price.
To have competitive new cars in this environment, GMs youth-focused vehicles must offer a level of product, service and fun that exceeds that of a well-equipped used SUV or midsized sedan, Welburn said. That drive has led directly to vehicles like this years Pontiac and Chevy concepts.
The Generation Y consumer has a big interest in a sporty SUV-type vehicle, but they cant quite put their finger on it, said Zack.
Most of what you think about Generation Y is probably wrong, said Jay Bernard, 32, a senior creative designer in the Corporate Brand Character Center and a member of the iSYS team. I always hear Jay, youre young, what do you think? But as he got into iSYSs market research, even the hip young Toronto native realized he didnt know half of Generation Ys story.
Generation Ys families are quite different from Ward and June Cleavers 1950s America: One in four lives in a single-parent household; three out of four have a working mother. And theyre diverse: more than one-third of the kids currently in elementary school are African-American or Hispanic.
In addition to this sort of diversity, the rise of connectivity and globalism are creating a mass market with an interconnected global culture that is blurring regional and even national distinctions. So Generation Y is at once homogenous and amazingly diverse. They want to be part of a group, but to have an individual identity as well, Bernard said.
One way to achieve this combination of fitting in and standing apart is to personalize and customize their vehicles. So look for more zip-out trim panels and removable seat covers in the automotive future. Exterior parts will be designed to be more accommodating of aftermarket add-ons. But it would be a mistake for GM to offer tricked-up features and gaudy design because echo boomers also say they want a car that has authentic looks and function.
Most important is to recognize that a youth car doesnt necessarily mean a cheap car. The list of top 10 cars being purchased by Generation Y currently includes the VW Jetta at $21,000, the Honda Accord at $22,000, and a $24,000 Ford F-series pickup. They want value for the money, not just the cheapest car on the market.
They havent really experienced an economic downturn, and theyre willing to pay for what they want, Goings added.
Generation Y drivers and pre-drivers aspire to Lexus, Mercedes and BMW, but their wish list also includes Chevy trucks and the GM Hummer, as well as Ford Explorer and Jeep Cherokee. Ideally, a vehicle designed with younger buyers in mind will have authentic looks, functionality, safety and quality will be right-sized, fun, personalizable and a good value for the money.
Aside from the status factor, studies by iSYS have also found that quality and safety are paramount. Younger buyers consider small cars unsafe, and big cars hard to drive and expensive to operate. So a successful youth car should be right-sized, safe and high quality. That may come as a surprise to those who think of all young people as reckless and fearless. However, Goings noted, these are people who have grown up in car seats and wearing bike helmets and wrist guards.
Above all, GM must be honest, real and authentic in marketing these new vehicles. The worlds largest corporation wont be able to get away with attempting to speak Generation Ys language; these marketing-savvy customers will see right through it and be turned off, Bernard said. But, he said, an honest, open approach will be respected.
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