Driving the Next Generation

Jan 21, 2011

Photographing cars at the NSRA Street Rod Nationals, Zan Martin of automotive advertising agency Martin & Co. had an epiphany: 90 percent of the drivers of the 11,000 vehicles at the show were seniors.

What does that mean for the future of street rodding, and the performance aftermarket in general? Where are sales going to come from once these current enthusiasts are gone?

Developing a new core of younger customers is crucial to the long-term survival of any performance shop and the entire industry. A recent discussion at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas titled “Revitalizing Our Youth’s Passion for Automobiles” touched on ways the industry can continue to thrive and grow by developing the next generation of performance and racing fans.

No Longer Car Crazy?

At Cie Studios, Tyler Tanaka, chairman-elect of the SEMA Street Performance Council (SPC), recently penned a column titled: “Gen Y’s De-Fascination with Automobiles,” which explains why younger drivers are no longer dependent on cars to be socially engaged.

It used to be that having a car was critical for young adults to lead an active social life, he says. Now, technology has made it so that teens are no longer dependent on a vehicle to take them to meet up with friends. Instead, shared experiences take place online through photos, videos and virtual personal experiences.

Because of this, Tanaka, Martin and others have arrived at a similar conclusion: Our industry needs to teach Generation Y-those born between 1982-’95-about cars and cultivate their interest into real hands-on experiences.

Some ways to do this, panelists suggest, include relying on younger employees to give input on the best direction for the company, building awareness where kids are, and seizing opportunities to provide hands-on automotive experiences for younger drivers to help build passion for the industry.

“Go to the blogs, read reviews and develop what they want. Don’t invent-solve problems or issues by recognizing what young consumers are looking for,” suggests Myles Kovacs, Dub Publishing president/co-founder. “Go where they are. Lots of car people play online games, and places with excellent public transportation exist where young people don’t need a car. Open up to others like Apple and Facebook and understand their appeal. We say we can’t sell direct, but we need to learn. With more virtual than real cars being sold, how can it be used to increase our bottom line? That’s how to survive.”

It’s a reality that social media is interwoven into the lives of younger drivers. Older professionals will do well to accept that instead of dismiss it, the panelists note, and use it to their advantage whenever possible.

“With over 500 million users, Facebook is the No. 1 site for time spent online, and 53 percent of users play games. Games drive engagement, and social games like Cie’s Car Town are not about skill, they’re for socializing,” says Justin Choi, Cie Studios president. “With 1 million views of the new Honda CR-Z, we’re about brand involvement.”

Get Hands-On

Stacey David, host and executive producer of “Stacey David’s GearZ” on SPEED, spoke on the aftermarket “Circle of Life” and how young children grow up to be car fans.

  • First they are introduced to cars through Hot Wheels or other toys, fueling a mechanical interest.
  • Next comes a TV show, cartoon or magazine, where kids imagine owning and driving cars, and the mechanics of a car start to make sense.
  • Now they build models, go-karts or pinewood derby cars. This is where kids begin understanding the craftsmanship automobiles entail, along with the frustration and trials that come with building something.
  • Until they make something with their hands or operate a performance vehicle, they don’t get the “gearhead” experience. “We need to teach them the skills, show them the tools and techniques that allow them to be successful, and never let them forget how cool and fun this is. It can’t be a job-it’s an adventure,” David says.
  • Once they have the tools, ability and desire to have a cool car, it’s up to the aftermarket to provide the parts and equipment to help make their dream a reality.
  • Finally, after creating the vehicle, they seek recognition. This takes them back to magazines and TV shows that piqued their interest initially, and the circle is not only complete but it starts over again, causing the industry to grow.

“The media needs to keep it real, and involve young adults. Manufacturers need the products to cover every segment and price range. SEMA must continue to welcome them in the industry,” he says. “On ‘GearZ,’ we feature die-cast vehicles, a segment called ‘What Are You Working On?’ to showcase viewers’ projects, and our latest, the Revell/GearZ National Model Car Contest, as ways of inspiring young people.”

What You Can Do

Summarizing Tanaka’s column, he recommends:

Know who your customers are. If you don’t, then conduct surveys to find out. Use inbound calls, emails and other means to learn who’s buying your products. If your products don’t apply to groups such as Gen Y, then stop trying to jump on the social media bandwagon. Eventually you might need to move into that space, but focus on maximizing sales today. If it’s Gen Y and younger that’s interested in your products, you need to reach them.

Be where your customers are. Don’t expect the same results as others with advertising or social media outlets. Some have success with Twitter and Tumblr; others get results by engaging consumers in building awareness and brand loyalty on Facebook. Hyper-targeting techniques such as enthusiast forums and blogs may allow you to deliver more specific vehicle make and model messages. Be prepared to change as needed to maximize results. Don’t invest in social media or digital platforms without looking at whom you are trying to sell. Ensure you’re able to deliver your targeted messages properly. Can your site be displayed on smart phones and the iPad? Mobile Internet usage will skyrocket in the next few years, so be sure consumers can access your information on each device.

Choose the proper bait. After identifying consumers, digital marketing costs are low enough to try Facebook, Adwords, Geo-Location, forums, blogs and paid content to see what works best based on data you collected and information gathered from each new campaign. Focus on successes. Get creative and look at the fashion and electronics industries to see what consumers are gravitating toward. Experiment with incentives, contests and user-generated content to increase reach and engagement. Maybe it’s working with select partners to deliver messages in new ways such as social gaming or viral videos. Whatever method you use, remember to treat every lead as if it is the most important. Consumers have little patience for companies that don’t go the extra mile in product and service support.

The opinions and purchasing decisions of young adults regarding cars are game-changing. Whether they hold true over the next few years remains to be seen.

“Remember that the aftermarket needs to identify who target consumers are today and how to reach them tomorrow. Realize that traditional sales and marketing tactics need to be changed and redeployed to effectively reach the ever increasing and soon to be very powerful consumer group that is Gen Y,” Tanaka says.

What our panel recommends in engaging young consumers is not expensive, but it does rely on you to be more proactive, detail-oriented and creative in your approach. This is the biggest challenge today and tomorrow in getting young people in the door and buying from you.