Recent headlines suggest a bleak future for the automotive industry. “Millennials Don’t Care About Owning Cars And Car Makers Can’t Figure Out Why,” says a May 2014 Fast Company article. In October 2014, a Washington Post article explored “the many reasons Millennials are shunning cars.” Millennials, study after study find, aren’t buying cars as much as previous generations.
But automakers can’t afford to ignore Millennials. With $135 billion in purchasing power, they represent a big opportunity for the fragile auto industry.
So how can car manufacturers adapt? I see three opportunities for these companies and for any brand trying to connect with young buyers:
1.Involve teens during the product development stage.
Customers are changing, so why shouldn’t your approach to product development do the same? To start, a deeper understanding of the values and motivations of teens could help companies develop better products for this market.
Some automakers are making tentative steps to target products at Millennials, who in general are concerned about affordability and a car’s environmental impact. The new Chevy Bolt announced last month is compact, fuel efficient, eco-friendly and relatively affordable. Reports claim that Tesla is developing a similar product that would bring an electric car to the masses. Responding to the increasing popularity of smaller SUVs, Jeep also started offering smaller, cheaper vehicles. Just because teens aren’t rushing to buy cars now doesn’t mean they won’t do it at a later stage of their lives. Automakers need to start engaging their community of teen consumers now, determine what’s important to them, and integrate that feedback throughout the innovation process.
2.Embrace the collaborative economy.
The collaborative economy of peer-to-peer sharing has grown exponentially, particularly among Millennials. Our 2014 study found that 76% of Millennials have participated in the collaborative economy in the last 12 months.
In the automotive business, the collaborative economy manifests itself through ride-sharing and car-sharing services. Millennials, even teens, increasingly use Uber, Zipcar and Lyft to get around. In response, some automotive companies are diving into the collaborative economy instead of resisting change. For example, Ford started supplying vehicles to Zipcar to meet demand in college towns. Not to be left behind, BMW also has a car-sharing program called DriveNow.
The collaborative economy is poised to double in 2015, so automakers need to adapt quickly. Partnering with tech companies like Uber or launching their own sharing program could give automakers the exposure they need to build their brand with younger customers.
3.Engage teens on their own terms.
Simply broadcasting your messages to teens won’t cut it anymore. Companies need a deeper understanding of their young customers and to adjust their approaches accordingly.
Offering unique experiences is a big opportunity for auto brands. Experiential marketing at music festivals, spring break destinations and other teen-centric events provides a way for companies to engage with teens where they actually hang out. Chevy, for example, has sponsored SXSW, giving festival-goers complimentary rides. Other automakers need to consider similar initiatives for the sake of the long-term health of their brands.
Companies also need to reassess the trendsetters they partner with. Teens today are just as likely to follow bloggers and YouTube celebrities as they are to be “5 Seconds of Summer” fans. Partnering with online trendsetters — for example, by sponsoring their blogs or by inviting them to drive your latest car — could expose your brand to younger audiences.
Cause marketing can also help brands build their relationship with Millennials. Engage teens in a two-way conversation to find out which initiatives matter to them, and then investigate how you can support those issues. Through their “Communities with Drive” social initiative, Ford and Zipcar demonstrate how other auto companies could use cause marketing to build their brand among Millennials.
It’s not all bad news for automakers: a recent MTV study suggests that a majority of teens actually likes driving. But with bleak employment prospects and with the wide availability of other transportation alternatives, it’s understandable why teens aren’t rushing to buy cars. A deeper understanding of teens will help companies improve their products, marketing initiatives and other business activities while building long-term relationships with these potential customers.