GM and Ford Cozy Up to Millennials

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Car brands have become intent upon roping in reluctant consumers from the Millennial generation. That’s why Ford has decided to set up shop, literally, in Silicon Valley, and why General Motors has turned to MTV for advice.

Today’s twenty-somethings have looked like trouble for a while to America’s automakers because they can’t be counted on to swoon about cars they way their parents did — and often still do. Of course, the importance of digital connectivity to this generation has been well-established, and Ford has managed to capitalize on it with its trail-blazing Sync infotainment platform.[more]

But actually, Sync’s success may be more a harbinger of trouble ahead than a reassurance that Ford (which proved its social/millennial chops with its Ford Fiesta Movement campaign) has this thing solved. Forty-six percent of drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would actually choose internet access over owning a car, according to the research firm Gartner, as cited by the New York Times. And MTV Scratch, a consulting unit of the youth-oriented TV channel, said that not one car brand ranked in the top 10 when Millennials were surveyed to see which of 31 brands of all types that they preferred.

Moreover, the newspaper noted, only 46 percent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had driver’s licenses in 2008, down from 64 percent just a decade earlier, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

GM’s answers to this dilemma have involved hiring a 31-year-old P&G alumnus to head up Millennial-marketing efforts, looking for ways to apply branding mystique a la Apple to Chevrolet, and hiring MTV Scratch to figure out youth tastes (and help with such efforts as a Detroit-based youth education activation called Get Schooled). Car companies are realizing that if they do not adjust to changing youth tastes, they “risk becoming the dad at the middle school dance,” Scratch SVP Anne Hubert, who works closely with GM, told the Times.

Hubert joined Shelby Clark, Founder and Chief Community Officer of Relay Rides; Andrew Dinsdale, Assistant Director, Digital and CRM at Chevrolet; and Nick Pudar, VP of OnStar Planning and Business Development at Chevrolet, in a panel at the recent SXSW called, “Crowdsourcing: Next Gen Consumers in the Driver’s Seat.”

The conversation focused on the “co-” mentality and how the Millennial generation are transforming GM and the auto industry as a whole. As the Scratch recap of the panel notes, “the discussion touched upon many of the trends and insights Scratch has been exploring over the last year – including co-creation, collaborative consumption, and the ‘Apiary’ mindset.” Apiary, by the way, in that “They thrive in hives, building communities around friends who think and live within similar values.”

Part of the digitally-savvy Ford’s answer for not losing ground on its early lead in appealing to this generation was last week’s announcement that the company has decided to set up a Silicon Valley Lab in Palo Alto, at the heart of the world’s leading digital-entrepreneurship nexus. It’s the first such research operation for Ford on the West Coast.

“Our new Silicon Valley Lab will help us innovate even faster as emerging ideas and technologies are [a] key part of the culture,” Paul Mascarenas, Ford’s chief technical officer, said in a statement.

And by culture, he means “youth culture.” Because that’s where the future is, GM, Ford and their competitors are hoping to make a better showing in that arena in the present.

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