Skip to main content

Depending on who you ask, 'hipster-ism' is a phenomenon that crested years ago and may even be dead. So why are car companies still marketing to this millennial niche?

Even if hipster-dom was still in its prime, its non-conformist members are more likely to be seen atop a fixed-gear bike than inside a shiny new car. Yet auto makers continue to pump out ads dripping with hipster iconography: beards; skinny jeans; toques; scarves and lots of plaid.

It's been that way for more than a decade. Remember that 2003 Mitsubishi Eclipse ad with the mod girl dancing in the passenger seat that spawned a thousand parodies?

More recent efforts have tried to recapture that same vibe, but in a slightly less annoying way. Last year, a Jeep Renegade spot replaced the dancing girl with a guitar-playing dude in a hipster-lite version.

Toronto DJ Gunnarolla and hip-hop duo Side Pony Nation pull off similar dance moves in a test-drive ad for Chevrolet's "Best Cruze Ever" social media campaign ahead of the vehicle's 2016 launch this spring.

That marketing effort was led by Jason Easton, GM Canada's head of sales and marketing for the Greater Toronto Area, who filmed the bit last December in the hipster-laden Queen Street West neighbourhood.

Easton, a millennial himself, remains hesitant to embrace it as hipster marketing per se: "We targeted that stretch for many reasons, but one is because the type of people who congregate in that area are much more of that hipster-type of vibe."

The Cruze has become popular with millennials and, since its 2005 launch, is now GM's top-selling car in Canada.

"To the extent to which millennials consume media or brand messaging through hipster-type channels, yes, we are there," says Easton, adding: "Our challenge is in positioning the vehicle within their world in a way that makes sense."

But car marketers go there at their own peril, as hipsters embody the Groucho Marx sentiment of not wanting to belong to any club that would have them as a member.

Easton says it's about "brand genuine-ness" – appealing to millennials in an authentic way that doesn't offend. "Everyone struggles to say 'hipster' because if you are self-describing yourself as a hipster, are you really one?"

The hard reality is that cars have lost some of their relevance for younger generations. New car sales among the under-34 set have declined from their pre-recession levels as a combination of tougher economic conditions and changing mores have hurt ownership. Not only are young people not buying as many cars, they also aren't getting their licences – a right of passage for their parents and grandparents.

"Millennials don't hate cars, they just don't see them as the universal status symbol that the baby boomer generation did," Ford futurist Sheryl Connelly says. Previous generations had a more defined road to maturity: go to college; get a job; fall in love; move to the city; settle down; move to the suburbs; and start a family.

"For millennials, there is no path," she says.

Connelly, who oversees publication of Ford's annual trends book, says cars must fit into the lifestyles of young people and not vice versa. That means an increased emphasis on quality, versatility, durability and technology.

"They want to be behind the wheel of their iPhone as opposed to the wheel of an automobile," Connelly says. "We think that the sport-utility vehicles will speak to them particularly with the data point that says they want to hold onto this vehicle for a decade. We're betting big on millennials."

For the survival of the industry, this is a wager that has to pay off. There are more millennials than any other generation – nearly 100 million in the United States and Canada alone. They represent nearly 30 per cent of the population and are expected to wield more than $200-billion in buying power by 2017, when the oldest members hit their mid-30s.

And while hipsters comprise a small subset of millennials, they hit above their weight financially.

"If you buy into the idea that this demographic doesn't give a crap about cars, and you're a higher up in the car industry, if we don't fix this, we're all sunk," says Laurance Yap, director of marketing at Pfaff Automotive Partners, an Ontario-based automotive dealer group that retails Audi, Porsche, Toyota and Volkswagen brands.

Ahead of the North American launch of its 2015 A3 sedan, Audi issued a 64-page guide to help its dealerships throw hipster-esque parties, without ever specifically using the term. The directive was to throw these bashes in studios or warehouses, to feature locally sourced food and craft beer and to have DJs only spin tracks that had "obvious cool factor."

Last fall, Mercedes-Benz introduced the Vision Tokyo, a concept car geared to "young, urban trendsetters" that would allow its passengers to be ferried about on soft leather seats in a self-driven electric car, while connecting holographically with friends via social media.

It's what they see future hipsters driving, but would this veritable lounge on wheels actually fly?

"It's ridiculous," says Andrew Tyne, 32, a reluctant member of hipster nation, despite his passion for technology, music, beards, suspenders, bow ties and craft beer – stereotypical hipster iconography. "It's just kind of like, 'What do we have left in the tank?'"

Most car companies want desperately to be viewed as "cool" and have a vision of who they want to be seen driving their cars, even if the reality is far different, says Mark Lantz, founder of Detroit-based marketing agency Factory Detroit Inc.

He adds hipsters are "the hot button of the moment" and a convenient "handle to mean cool, educated, socially and politically left-leaning, urban white people."

As more young people migrate to large cities, car companies are forced to try to appeal to them where they live.

"Young urbanites, regardless of their taste in music and facial hair choices, are very much driving the big product development decisions at all of the car manufacturers," says Yap, who disputes the notion this generation doesn't care about cars.

"Young people are still engaged by cool cars," he says, pointing anecdotally to the long lines of kids he sees waiting to get posters at auto shows. But Yap admits tastes have changed: "Buyers of today care more about whether they can stream their music over Bluetooth than how fast they get from zero to 60. That is a pretty seismic shift."

For Yap, the biggest concern is the cost of owning a car, especially in a Canadian market that features punishingly high insurance rates for anyone younger than 30.

In this way, Tyne is a good case study for car makers to understand what millennials, and more specifically hipsters, want from them. Up until last summer, the Dartmouth, N.S., event planner made it to work in a Mazda 3 – one of a matching sky blue pair he bought new with his wife in 2011. When he looked at the cost, however, Tyne swapped his ride for a hybrid bike.

"You felt a little sick when you realized what you were paying for the bloody thing," he says, noting he'll save about $7,000 this year not having to pay his loan, insurance, parking, gas, upkeep and other "ancillary" costs. "We got a car because we assumed we needed a car, and we didn't really challenge that assumption."

Tyne, who has two smartphones but no TV, represents a further challenge for car marketers, who have relied heavily on television ads. Like most of his ilk, he finds marketing disingenuous.

"If I already want your stuff, I don't have to see your commercials," he says.

The conundrum: how do you hook someone who doesn't want to be hooked?

"Whether we're talking about automotive, or we're talking about jeans, or we're talking about something else, no one wants to feel that they're targeted to," says Max Mancuso, a strategy director at Toronto-based marketing firm Padulox, who has Mercedes as a client. "Even using the term targeting feels a bit yucky."

Mancuso knows a thing or two about hipsters, employing certain mustachioed, man-bun sporting "coffee enthusiasts" at his The Good Neighbour espresso joint in the city's trendy Junction area.

He says car marketing has shifted, becoming less about the "rich smell of mahogany and fine leather" to being more about the experience you get when you drive the vehicle.

The car brands that will win the day, Mancuso says, will be the "ones that align themselves with the core values of each generation that come up."

Like us on Facebook

Follow us on Instagram

Add us to your circles

Sign up for our weekly newsletter