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, U.S. consumers 50-plus 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. Though desperate for our dollars they are dismissive of our demographic.
So we observe September as American Boomer Wheels Month by urging smarter and more creative – much more creative – engagement in the 50+ space.
Conformists, buckle up; the road to creative thinking is always bumpy.
Electric car culture: 120 years in the making
Pushed by environmental groups and “encouraged” by politicians, electric vehicles are prominently featured at auto expos these days. Frankfurt 2015 is no exception. Mostly we’ll be seeing concepts and compromises – high style and low range … the standard joke is that electric vehicles are the next big thing, and always will be.
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.
The Boomer/Gen X inner mind: EVs are from Venus
From our proprietary in-depth motivational research files (2006), here’s the Boomer/Gen X baseline:
- Gasoline engines are from Mars
- EVs and hybrids are from Venus
- 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. Gasoline engines offer performance and fun but rank low for nurturing traits like femininity or social responsibility.
Diesels are from the Klingon home-world
Aggressive, loud and smelly but they get the job done – 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/low 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 welcomed a 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 an EV renaissance.
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 does not rank high as a shopping list priority for most compact car buyers.
A 2015 TrueCar survey 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 proud BMW, Mercedes and Cadillac owners wish 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.
Boomers and Gen Xers aged 35 and up accounted for 81% of pure EV sales in 2013 (Experian Automotive) and 94% of Tesla S registrations through 2014 (Edmunds.com).
Digging deeper, we estimate 43% of total EV buyers and 53% of Tesla S buyers are age 50-plus Also, industry reports show a strong male skew and – you’ve guessed it – incomes way, way above average.
Although skewed slightly younger by affluent Silicon Valley techies, EV demographics are reflective of the new vehicle market as a whole: consumers aged fifty plus buy half of all U.S. new cars, and over 80% are accounted for by those age 35 and above. Millennials buy less than 20% of new vehicles.
OK, straight talk about Millennials.
Despite advertiser fixation on youth – more specifically, trendy youth like the well-paid 20/30 somethings who populate ad agencies – most Millennials are preoccupied with 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, Boomers and those born 1940-1945 (the Boomer-Plus Generation™), are 93 million strong and own 70% of U.S. household net worth. It’s 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.