See, I’m a member of Generation Y, perhaps better known as “Millennials”. Born between 1980 and the year 2000, Millennials are the largest generation since Baby Boomers with incredible buying power and political sway. Barack Obama owes his 2008 election in part to his social media savvy and appeal to today’s young people. Unfortunately for American automakers, Ford included, Millennials don’t care much for cars.
Marketing To Millennials: Easier Said Than Done
This is a big problem for Mustang fans.
Ford has already admitted that the next Mustang will have a radical design completely unlike the current pony car. The Evos Concept released last fall is said to be very similar to the next Mustang design, and word on the street is that a 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine will become the base powerplant for Ford’s sports car. The sleek lines, high-tech engine, and a killer infotainment system are all aimed squarely at my generation.
And quite frankly, most people my age could care less. But that doesn’t seem to be getting through to the people at Ford.
Ford has spent untold millions attempting to get young people interested in their products, with at best mixed results. Take the Fiesta Movement, which gave 100 “social influencers” a free Fiesta to drive around for a few days. Two years later, and the Fiesta is one of the worst-selling compact cars on the market. It isn’t because the Fiesta is a bad car. It is because it is a Ford.
What I mean is that many people my age have very poor experiences with domestic brands. Just this past weekend, a friend was telling me how he plans to replace his Audi with another Audi. I urged him to take a look at a Ford, especially the Taurus SHO which matched his criteria for luxury, speed, and all-wheel drive. You know what he told me? “Sorry, but all I remember is my mom’s Taurus wagon breaking down month after month after month. I’ll never drive another Ford because of that.”
You only get one chance to make a first impression, and hand-me-down domestic cars from the 90’s aren’t even in the same ballpark as the experiences of many Honda and Toyota owners.
Close minded? Absolutely. And yet Panther-platform not withstanding, who here will stand up and defend the quality of mid-90’s Ford products? Not I. And again, this isn’t limited to just Ford. GM and Chrysler both had terrible quality issues during this era, and more often than not many Millennials first experience behind the wheel was in one of these cars. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and hand-me-down domestic cars from the 90’s aren’t even in the same ballpark as the experiences of many Honda and Toyota owners.
Even I am guilty; my current daily driver is a 15-year old Honda accord with 180,000 miles. Despite a decade of neglectful ownership prior to entering my service, this car still runs like a top, and it has twice the resale potential of a Taurus from the same era.
Baby Boomers Still Buying, Albeit Barely
So this brings me back to Ford’s Mustang problem.
I have no doubt that the Blue Oval will employ all manner of social media to promote the new Mustang. Ford knows that today’s young people are more interested in cell phones and video games than they are in cars, and they know that to survive as a company, they have to engage this new generation in terms they can understand. But I’m not sure it is going to matter.
The current Mustang is an ode to the Mustangs of yesteryear, while the next Mustang will attempt to appeal to a much younger demographic. While it most certainly is too early to call it either way, Ford risks alienating the older buyers with a design that is nothing like Mustangs of the past.
There are always the diehards who will embrace a new Mustang with unabashed enthusiasm, but Mustang sales have been steadily dwindling for decades. Mustang sales were once measured in the hundreds of thousands; yet since the 2008 financial collapse, Mustang sales have been almost cut in half. In 2007, Ford sold over 134,000 Mustangs. In 2011, Ford sold just over 70,400.
Me personally? I am counting the days and the dollars until the next-generation Mustang comes out. I’ll keep driving that Honda up to the day the next ‘Stang comes out if I have to. But I know that I am the minority. Of all my car buddies, I can think of just two who are both Millennials and Mustang owners. Everybody else either owns an iPhone, or an import.
My fear though is that too many people my age will take one look at it, go “Cool car,” and return to downloading the App Du Jour.
There is no doubt in my mind that the next Mustang will be great, probably even better than I can imagine right now. My fear though is that too many people my age will take one look at it, go “Cool car,” and return to downloading the App Du Jour.
It’s not that Millennials don’t appreciate a cool or classic car. We do. But owning such a car, especially a new one, is more than most of them can imagine for economic and cultural reasons. Many Millennials (including this guy) have moved from the suburbs into more urban areas, where owning a car is often more hassle than it’s worth.
Plus the availability of car-sharing services like ZipCar allow my generation access to a car when they need it, without the high cost of ownership to go with it. Even though Millennials are impulse-buyers, shelling out $20,000 is simply more “impulse” than many of my peers can muster.
Different Priorities, Different Tastes
My generation has a very simple outlook on life. Everything we look at comes with a simple question; is it worth it? My generation has a trillion dollars (and counting) of college debt, and job prospects for many of us remain slim to non-existent. It is a lot easier to buy, on impulse, a $50 truffle salad than a brand new Mustang, and it isn’t easy to convince mom or dad to co-sign a car loan when you are still living in their basement.
Ford is doing everything right to appeal to my generation. Their SYNC system is blazing new ground in terms of what infotainment centers can do, and EcoBoost engines are proving to be very popular with new car buyers. One needn’t look far to see the success Hyundai has had with its fluid, sweeping design language. I have no doubt that even the base-model Mustang will deliver an awesome driving experience, along with great gas mileage and a high-quality feel.
But will it matter to a generation whose ambivalence for cars is matched only by their enthusiasm for smartphones?
The original Mustang was a success because, like Obama, it won the youth vote. The current Mustang definitely appeals to Baby Boomers, and Ford wants to return to the Mustangs youthful appeal. But if Ford goes hard after the Millennials with the 2015 Mustang, and the Millennials don’t respond in kind, I fear for the future of the Mustang as an affordable sports car with youthful ambitions. Instead, Ford might pull back and focus instead on its bread-and-butter, an older, more affluent crowd with traditional tastes. I fear that the Mustang may become Ford’s version of the Corvette, a car that knows its audience can and will pay a premium price for the experience.
I hope I am wrong.