Have you ever seen a car unveiled, and thought to yourself, "Who the hell do they think is gonna buy that?" Sure you have. Cars evoke emotional but subjective responses; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all.
What you might not always know is who that company thought would buy that car. This is more fun, and all too often, throws a blinding light on the disconnect between what manufacturers think you want, and what you actually want.
Because there's nothing that can be all things to all people, it makes sense to at least try to define your target demographic. Car manufacturers pay advertising agencies bucket-loads of money to come up with snappy slogans and mine your subconscious so that when you see the latest offering from said company, you stop cold in front of it and declare while you're not sure why, you simply must have one.
At least that is the plan.
I'm curious to know who sits around that table, and how they arrive at the conclusions that they do. Maybe they just want to break for lunch, or it's gone far too long into a booze-soaked night session, but some of the "brand goals" that gel in that setting are tethered to the wants and needs of no car buyer I have ever met.
Advertising Age recently ran an internal document from Lincoln in the U.S., exploring how its marketing team (which includes several ad agencies) is trying to revamp the image of its stereotypical consumer – at an average age of 65, the oldest of any car buyer.
Lincoln's plan? To shake things up by targeting that guy. That guy in the office you've been hard-pressed to adequately describe, his admirable uniqueness nearly defying words. Nearly. Here, let Lincoln describe him for you: "He famously orchestrated an office-wide funeral for his assistant's old cat, even though he's more of a dog person."
That customer also is described variously as "an agile visionary" and a "magician" who's a "cultural change agent," who is "admired by a broad circle" and is "often the subject of the question, 'How does he do it?'"
I will never look at a Lincoln again and not think "office-wide cat funeral." Many members of our rapidly aging population love Lincolns. Why muck with it? Do you really have to be a visionary or magician to want one?
I was told at a Fiat 500 launch that everybody would love this car. Everybody. This is nice, wishful thinking, but a car the size of a Skittle, regardless of how fun (and it is) or fuel efficient it might be, is not going to appeal to everybody. Embedding it into a Jennifer Lopez music video – where she famously didn't even bother driving the car – sent the ad agency out the window, and the marketing team back to the drawing board. Too specific a picture ("office-wide cat funeral") may be limiting, but too vague can be just as deadly.
If you're putting a car together, you absolutely have to decide who it would appeal to, who could afford it, what options they will demand, and what role they need that vehicle to fulfill. I will never understand why manufacturers purposely target women (as if that was doable; have you ever watched two women shop together?) and fail to take into consideration that frequently, more than one person drives a car, and often a buyer will be looking to resell at some point. Why wipe out half your demographic – or more? Hummers were heavily aimed at men, and the only market risk that entailed losing was actual men.
A few years ago, the reissued Volkswagen Bug's bobbling, whimsical flower defined its comeback market. Currently, sleeker lines borrowed from its big brother at Porsche have pushed it back towards the less-gendered offering it originally was.
I believe manufacturers set out to create vehicles that will operate well for a demographic based more on cost, fuel efficiency, family configuration and lifestyle requirements. What will I think of my car? The ad people get in there, and twist it: what will other people think of me in my car?
An invite crossed my desk the other day. A release for the Acura ILX described thusly: "It's the car for the young professional who is no longer an intern. He's got a bit more cash and he's ready to trade in his baseball cap for a pocket square. He wants to be like the guy he sees in the magazines but he's not quite there yet."
Acura officials included where the event was being held, but they'd left off the date: 1950.