Ford Prepares For The Next Generation

by , Aug 29, 2011, 8:00 AM
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While it's definitely about the Lincolns (or lack thereof), perhaps some of Millennials' unwillingness to spend on houses and cars is a reaction against the venality/materialism of their parents, pre-2008. In any case, they are not buying new cars, houses, boats, or much of anything. Yes, they want things, but they don't want to be encumbered by them. Thus, the popularity of the Zip Car, Netflix and sites where you can even borrow expensive things like handbags.

Along with every other automaker that isn't selling exclusively to the masters of the universe who can drop $250,000 on a limited-run Ferrari, Ford is worried about this trend for obvious reasons. They are all trying to figure out how to appeal to Millennials, who care more about the upcoming iPhone 5, apps and music than about the latest compact car. Ford's strategy has been to use in-car technology like its Sync platform to make cars like Focus and Fiesta as much like rolling media labs as possible, and therefore (more) relevant to people who are probably more interested in learning to ride a "fixie" bike than getting a driver's license.

The company last week held a panel discussion in the New York offices of PR firm Burson-Marsteller along with Alloy Media + Marketing to talk about these consumers, what they want, and what they mean for the business.

Ford's Sheryl Connelly, the company's global trends expert, and Brian McClary, digital and emerging media marketing manager, shared the stage with ... well, other panelists, sure, but also a big screen that streamed real-time videos of people tuning into the webcast itself, as seen from their own webcams.

And that by itself made the event oddly "Oz"-like: as panelists spoke, one could also watch the watchers, including Ford's ubiquitous Twitter meister, Scott Monty (who, formal as always, observed proceedings from his cubicle like the Wizard himself.) Here was an event where viewers could watch other viewers viewing themselves viewing themselves, viewing themselves.

Anyway, Connelly and McClary were joined onstage by Andi Poch, SVP at AlloyDigital, and mashable.com entertainment and technology writer Christina Warren, a Millennial Shelley Duvall lookalike who seemed to actually channel Duvall's performance from "The Shining" during the webcast, which was a little unsettling.

And while a lot of the conversation was like eating a big bowl of "mashable" clichés liberally sweetened with things like "really, really, really," numerous references to things being "awesome" and at least 10 uses of the short form of deoxyribonucleic acid to express brand attributes, the best content was about what Ford is up to, and Connelly's stats about what's actually happening in dealer showrooms. Or what's not happening.

McClary said the bottom line for Ford when it comes to things like branded digital games is value-added content, preferably of the digital kind. The company did a big partnership with E3 this year around the Sims game, which I wrote about at some point this year. Said McClary, "Every gaming program we work on you have to give something back so you we don't just hit you over the head with a marketing message." Connelly noted this about Millennials, 11,000 of whom turn 13 each day (my daughter is one, and she totally perked up when Poch talked up Alloy's "Pretty Little Liars" content): according to U.S. Department of Transportation stats, 50% of 16 year olds got a driver's license in 1978. In recent years, that number has dropped to 31%. She noted that some of that decline has been due to tougher guidelines and higher costs. But that can't explain it all.

"What we see more critically is that people between 21 and 30 are driving 10% fewer miles. Economics is the simple answer, as this generation is coming of age in a time of great uncertainty. Yes, the recession has officially ended, but Millennials don't feel that way." She notes that employment numbers for Millennials are in the tank, and they are living at home with the 'rents.

All that aside, she also says that there are also simply more and more things competing for Millennials' limited dollars. "Today we have such a rapid pace of innovation that things like cell phones and gaming systems are taking away from money reserved for their first vehicle. If a car used to be symbol of freedom and independence, the cell phone has certainly replaced it."

That's a serious challenge, indeed. Panelists agreed that Millennials are more interested in sharing things and being able to get those items -- jewelry, music, handbags, cars, you name it -- when they need them, and jettisoning them when they don't. Clearly, there isn't so much cachet these days in being encumbered by big, expensive toys. It is, however, worth noting that such a sentiment is at least as old as Marley's ghost, who, after all, was shackled in death to the valuables he amassed in life.

And consider today's syntax for fashion iconography ("Nomad Chic" one might call it): the above mentioned one-gear "fixie" bicycles; extremely thin, light portable computers with no extra buttons; and the advent of (and sheer terror about) the fearsome "hoarding" syndrome. It's all about quick mobility, Spartan living, and constant connectivity.

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