Reprise: Why September is American Boomer Wheels Month
Each September, Frankfurt, Germany, home to the largest motor show on the planet, draws car makers, the media and experts from around the world to marvel at the auto industry’s most creative ideas.
In 2014, we Americans over fifty bought 6.9 million new passenger vehicles, more than Germany (3 million) and the UK (2.5 million) combined.
Amazingly, this enormous buyer group is almost invisible in auto maker and dealer advertising – the “where’s Waldo?” of Madison Avenue – because the Mad Men say we are no longer adaptable or worth targeting.
Conformists, buckle up; the road to creative thinking is always bumpy.
Electric car culture: 120 years in the making
The standard joke is that electric vehicles are the next big thing, and always will be.
EVs have been around a long time – long enough to acquire complex cultural back-stories and symbolism that render simplistic brand strategies ineffective.
We’re talking about battery-only EVs. Hybrids and range-extender products offer green-ish bragging rights, but for purists, their continued reliance on fossil fuel means they’re just a stepping stone.
In the 1890s/early 1900s, electrics were more popular than gasoline cars – as the new century dawned, one even held the land speed record (66 mph). But by 1920, they faded into niche applications as the internal combustion engine achieved dominance.
Even today, except for Tesla, electric cars run out of juice almost as fast as when Henry Ford and William “General Motors” Durant put them out of business and John D. Rockefeller sold the gasoline that made it possible.
InsideEVs reports battery-only car sales of 69,000 in 2014 – up from 46,000 in 2013 and 14,000 in 2012, but still only 0.4% of the U.S. passenger car total.
So, the Age of Oil is still alive and well. But, like the Boomers, it weathered some life lessons and hard knocks along the way.
Look out! Here come the 1970s!
A confluence of disruptive events in the 1970s and ’80s changed forever how Boomers and Gen Xers look at autoworld and the fuels that power it.
- Declining U.S. oil production forced a shift to overseas sources, bringing price disruptions and geo-political entanglements in its wake.
- Environmentalism hit critical mass in credibility and influence.
- The EPA, created by President Nixon, issued rules that forced Detroit towards fuel-efficient “little” products they previously regarded as low status and entry level.
- Import brands boomed, capitalizing on their economy car expertise.
- The exciting new digital revolution told us almost anything is possible thanks to technology … maybe even workable EVs.
By the time the new century arrived, Boomers and Gen Xers had adopted a whole new set of attitudes about engines and fuel types.
Boomer/Gen X baseline: gasoline engines are from Mars and EVs are from Venus … diesels are from the Klingon home-world
From in-depth motivational research conducted by sister company American Consumer Voices in 2006, here’s the Boomer/Gen X baseline:
Gasoline engines are from Mars, EVs and hybrids are from Venus and diesels are from the Klingon home-world.
Gasoline engines are from Mars
For Boomers and Gen Xers this harks back to big ‘ol Detroit V8 mills laying down rubber for half a block or hauling man-sized loads to the job-site or campsite. Gasoline engines offer performance and fun but rank low for nurturing traits like femininity or social responsibility.
Diesels are from the Klingon home-world
Diesel engines, like gasoline, are seen as extremely masculine and reliable but, also, the least socially responsible of all engine types. They get the job done, but are stereotyped as aggressive, loud and smelly – it’s a guy thing.
Diesels definitely do not signal fun, femininity, status or youth.
EVs and hybrids are from Venus
Electric powertrains – hybrids or EVs – signal social responsibility, youth, a progressive mindset and femininity/diminished machismo.
Making the EV vs. ICE contrast even more stark, when the Prius hybrid arrived Boomers were splurging on blinged-out, super-sized SUVs. Bambi meets Godzilla on wheels.
Hybrid supporters saw New Age cachet and a welcome pivot away from a world dominated by boors in – ugh! – Hummers. The price premium and breakthrough technology attracted enthusiasts who could afford the risk – older and more affluent than average.
To hybrid critics, pricey, clean, small and quirky symbolized smug, elitist and wimpy. On a rational level, they questioned price/value, net eco-benefits, including battery disposal, and pointed to continued hybrid dependence on gasoline.
The emotional stage was set for the EV renaissance of the 2010s.
EVs in the 21st century; emotions still rule
EVs rely heavily on emotional appeals – cool technology and green bragging rights for those who can afford the early adopter risk. No surprise, risk is not a shopping list priority for most compact car buyers.
A 2015 TrueCar survey (hat tip Paul Eisenstein_The Detroit Bureau) illustrates the excitement of EV ownership for affluent buyers. Studying two models that offer both gasoline and pure electric, the researchers found e-buyer median incomes were at least twice that of those choosing the ICE.
In fact, median buyer incomes for Ford e-Focus ($199,000) and Fiat 500e ($145,000) are up in luxury car brand territory, while gas model buyers ($77,000 and $73,000 respectively) fall below the industry average.
We’re betting these affluent e-owners have plenty of other fun vehicles on hand for trips over 80 or so miles.
Statistically … the EV current market splits three ways: 71% of 2014 sales went to Nissan Leaf (44%) and Tesla S (27%) – eleven competitors hustled for the leftovers.
Emotionally … there are only two segments: Tesla S and the rest.
The Tesla S is the first full size, no range excuses, macho EV to hit the market – it’s what every proud BMW, Mercedes and Cadillac owner wishes had come from their own distinguished marques.
Even USA TODAY couldn’t resist a dig at the Los Angeles police department for evaluating a BMW i3 …
“the sight of a puny, electric-powered BMW police car with flashing red lights isn’t exactly going to instill fear in the hearts of this city’s criminals.”
Boomers and Gen X generate over 80% of EV sales
EVs may be the way of the future, but Millennials have yet to get the message.
Gen X and Boomer-Plus – aged 35 and over – accounted for 81% of pure EV sales in 2013 (Experian Automotive) and 94% of Tesla S registrations through 2014 (Edmunds.com).
Digging deeper, the Boomer-Plus Consulting Group estimates 43% of total EV buyers and 53% of Tesla S buyers are aged 50 and over. Also, industry reports show a strong male skew and – you’ve guessed it – incomes way, way above average.
Despite advertiser fixation on younger buyers, consumers aged fifty plus buy half of all U.S. new cars, and around 30% are accounted for by those aged 35-49.
OK, straight talk about Millennials; today, most are focused on finding decent jobs, paying for college or starting their own households – new cars are on hold. Yes, in the future, they will buy most of America’s vehicles. After they too turn 50.
Of course, by then, Madison Avenue will probably ignore them and lionize Generation Whatever instead.
In the meantime, the Boomer-Plus Generation, born 1940-1965, is 93 million strong and owns 70% of U.S. household net worth. We’re the world’s third largest economy and buy more new cars than any country on Earth except China and the U.S. itself.
Memo to disruptive brands: plug into Boomers – the ultimate EV sales charging station.