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Marketing Cars in the 21st Century

by Joanne Brickman

As the world neared the turn of the 20th century, the automobile was fast attracting a large public intrigued by this newfangled machine and its ability to take them places.  Germany's Karl Benz, who built 135 cars in 1895, had sold 2000 of them throughout Europe by 1899.  In 1896, Charles and Frank Duryea founded the United States auto industry by building and selling thirteen of their cars.  By 1900, the appeal of the horseless carriage had some 300 companies attempting to market automobiles in America (most were unsuccessful), and about 4,000 autos had actually been sold.
      As we mark the beginning of the 21st century, there are an estimated 215 million automobiles in the United States alone.  For the new car buyer, the selection is massive, with well over 300 different models from which to choose. 
      There was a time when automotive marketing to the new car buyer was fairly simple.  Advertising on network television and radio and consumer magazines created awareness of the automaker's brand and models, and local TV, radio, newspaper, outdoor, and direct mail brought the customers into the dealership.
      Today, with multiplicity of buyer demographics and the enormous volume of vehicles, it's far more complicated.  Advertising tools, themselves, are changing.  The Internet, for example, is quickly becoming part of the advertising media mix for many carmakers.  In the United States alone, an estimated 50 percent of all households have computers and nearly a third of them use the Internet.  In addition, the Internet is readily accessible at informational locations like the public library and senior centers.  Hence, the importance of this relatively new tool which can both advertise and sell a vehicle.
      Automotive marketing strategy today involves a fresh mix of age groups and psychographics.  The groupings begin with Generation Y (those born after 1976) and ends with Empty Nester (some of those, though not all nowadays, over 50).  In between are a group called Generation X (twenty-somethings) and the perennial favorite, the Baby Boomer (age 35-54). 
      Baby Boomers continue to be the most sought-after target group, noted, among other things, for being largely responsible for the phenomenal success of the sport utility vehicle.  Although they won't begin to retire in large numbers until about 2010, Baby Boomers are maturing and melding into the Empty Nester category daily. 
      Today's Empty Nester, according to a recent American Demographics magazine, is "a crop of aging Americans much different from their parents.  To them, retiring from their current job or profession doesn't mean daily golf games and soap operas, but rather starting a part-time business, renovating houses, and the like." 
      New demographic definitions call for new and different marketing strategies. Innovative ideas like partnerships and tie-ins pepper today's marketing scene. 
      Ford, for example, recently engaged in a partnership with Fisher-Price that subtly proclaims both company's interest in child safety in vehicles.  The two announced an enhanced children's car seat system that is easier to use and provides for a more secure attachment in vehicles.  The marketing efforts combine to promote both Fisher-Price's new Safe Embrace II Convertible Car Seat and the new child safety seat anchors on Ford products.
      Another move toward innovative marketing comes from Ford's Mercury brand.  A promotional campaign based on the Independent Thinkers book series links Mercury and Barnes & Noble, Inc., and  in a major marketing effort for the 2000 Sable. 
      "Our research shows Sable buyers are avid readers," said Jennifer Moneagle, Mercury group brand manager. "The Independent Thinkers series is a thoughtful and highly targeted marketing effort to reach Sable buyers." 
      Over at Toyota Motor Sales, this past spring the automaker once again joined with Parenting magazine and Borders Books and Music stores for the third year of "Reading 2000," a program focused on enhancing family literacy. At events held at Borders' stores across the country, parents (and grandparents) had the opportunity to learn about the why's and how-to's of reading aloud to children thanks to an innovative marketing strategy.
      As we cruise through the 21st century, we'll see more and more automotive marketers supplementing conventional thinking with innovative ideas -- successful strategies that closely identify the car's demographic target and creatively match lifestyle with vehicles. 
      It'll be an interesting ride.



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