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GM 2001 Concepts

GM is Firmly Targeting the Young, Affluent Consumer

General Motors is taking aim at “Generation Y” with this year’s portfolio of  concept cars. At 70 million strong, the sons and daughters of America’s 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 they’re deciding what they like at a very young age,” explained Janet Goings, 41, a portfolio concepts manager who leads one of GM’s youth focus teams. “These are sophisticated consumers, and if we don’t 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. GM’s 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 what’s cool and what’s uncool have already jelled.

“We’ve even seen it at 6, 8, 10 years old,” said Valerie Cole, 25, an analyst in GM’s 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 don’t 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. They’re very comfortable thinking about the future.”


There won’t 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 couldn’t 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 GM’s Corporate Brand Character Center.

“The concept vehicles aren’t 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. That’s 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, Buick’s 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, they’d prefer to have a more prestigious used car like a small BMW," said Garrick Zack, a 25-year-old designer in GM’s 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 today’s 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 what’s cool is cool, in spite of the price.

To have competitive new cars in this environment, GM’s 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 year’s Pontiac and Chevy concepts.

“The Generation Y consumer has a big interest in a sporty SUV-type vehicle, but they can’t 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, you’re young, what do you think?’”  But as he got into iSYS’s market research, even the hip young Toronto native realized he didn’t know half of Generation Y’s story.

Generation Y’s families are quite different from Ward and June Cleaver’s 1950s America: One in four lives in a single-parent household; three out of four have a working mother. And they’re 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” doesn’t 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 haven’t really experienced an economic downturn, and they’re 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 world’s largest corporation won’t be able to get away with attempting to speak Generation Y’s 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.

American Generations

Baby Boom
Born 1946 to 1964
Size 78 million

Generation X
Born 1965 to 1976
Size 45 million

Generation Y
Born 1977 to 1994
Size 70 million


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