Marketers Turn To Cultural Trends To Drive Interest In Cars

It’s no surprise that auto industry is in trouble, particularly when it comes to teens. Young drivers continue to drive less, buy fewer cars, and make more use of alternate forms of transportation than in years past. In recent years, several automotive brands have tried using ad campaigns and technology integrations to make cars cool again, but the result has been more functional than fun. But automakers and marketers keep trying! Some of their latest attempts to get teens into cars (literally!) are taking advantage of some cultural trends to add an aura of coolness to their campaigns to reach this elusive audience while also speaking to their specific needs and interests.

Both Dodge and Hyundai have launched crowd-funding websites this year. If people are willing to fund random projects on Kickstarter, why not see if they would crowd-fund a car? The Dodge Dart Registry allows the user to custom-design a car and then promote their registry using social media to get family, friends, and even strangers to sponsor parts of their car. Meanwhile, Hyundai partnered with Motozuma, an online car savings program that allows users and others to contribute to a car fund, and the automaker will match up to $500 that a user saves toward the purchase of a Hyundai. Both programs have had questionable success—donating money to give a teen a car has less of a “feel good” effect than donating to a public art project on Kickstarter — but the concept of self-promotion and crowd-funding resonates with cash-strapped teens who need to find alternative ways to fund their dream vehicle. 



Meanwhile, Volkswagen is modernizing a teenage rite of passage — the road trip. Its new app, SmileDrive, uses location-based technology and social media to enhance any trip, posting location and status updates along the way while also giving the user badges for certain events, such as passing an identical car on the road. It even incorporates the classic road trip game, Punch Bug — drivers get badges for other VWs they pass that are also using SmileDrive. The app appeals to young drivers because it makes road trips easily sharable on social media and more of a game, and at the end, they have a digital scrapbook of the trip.

Then there’s Nissan’s campaign to get young drivers into its Leaf hybrid, virtually, by offering the make as part of the Sims videogame. The marketing plan takes advantage of the fact that videogame players want games to be as immersive and life-like as possible, which means including real brands in the game. Players who drive the car and add electric charging stations to their cities are rewarded with extra happiness points, which Nissan hopes will give them a positive association with the brand when they’re ready to buy a car in real life.

Honda is tapping Millennials’ close relationships with their parents to hopefully drive sales. On a recent trip to a show room, we found it plastered with posters representing the occasions that families buy cars — when the family grows with the addition of a baby, when a teenage child gets a license, when the child graduates from high school or college. It’s a smart move; the campaign speaks to parents’ desire to give their children everything and Millennials’ hope (and sometimes expectations) for rewards upon reaching certain major milestones.

By leveraging trends that resonate with youth and offer specific benefits, auto makers hope to do a U-turn with teens and get them back into the driver’s seat, preferably in their brand of compact car. Time will tell if these new tactics can go the distance with young drivers.

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