September is American Boomer Wheels Month because …
Germany always comes into focus for automakers in September. Usually it’s because the Frankfurt Auto Show, the world’s largest, takes center stage. But this year the spotlight is on how Volkswagen misled the EPA over diesel engine emissions.
For many American Boomers, vee-dub was our counter-culture college sweetheart, the darling of 1960s disruptives. How our generation processes dieselgate is vital both to the Volkswagen brand and the future of diesel cars in the U.S.
It’s worth remembering why Boomers are so important; Americans aged fifty-plus bought 6.9 million new passenger vehicles in 2014, over twice as many as Germany (3 million).
Despite our generational dominance, auto industry marketing gurus – VW included – no longer target us after we leave the 18-49 demographic. Maybe 25-54. Whatever.
So the Boomer-Plus Consulting Group observes September as American Boomer Wheels Month by urging car companies to start competing for our business.
American consumer culture: Diesels are from the Klingon home-world
Last week we discussed cultural dynamics in the EV marketplace; the handy metaphor is that gasoline engines are from Mars, electrics are from Venus and diesels are from the Klingon home-world.
The Volkswagen fiasco – more of that later – plays into deeply ingrained negative attitudes about diesels that are held by a majority of American consumers. Originating with mainstream Boomers and older Gen Xers living in suburbs and white-collar cities, this culture of suspicion has been handed down to their Millennial children.
Most city folk were imprinted from childhood by diesel trucks, heavy equipment and buses. Big, strong, indispensable to everyday life, but also smelly, noisy and polluting. Intimidating, too – even more so as we moved to smaller cars over the years; giant wheels spinning at eye level reminded drivers to treat trucks with extra caution.
An early Steven Spielberg movie, Duel, in which an eerie big rig stalks a businessman, tells you all you need to know about how we felt about Peterbilts. Macks and Freightliners.
But out in heartland America, diesel trucks represent a man’s world where stereotypes run to salt-of-the-earth blue collar. Here, the big dogs are guy-cool 18-wheelers driven by free spirits who roll day and night while lesser mortals take off-ramps to the quiet, domesticated burbs.
This macho aura trickles down to burly diesel pickups that – confident atop the light duty vehicle food chain – haul everything from masonry to Brahma bulls to boats and RVs.
Domestic and imported diesel passenger cars – VW Rabbit and Dasher among them – rattled into this brawny arena in the 1970s/80s following back-to-back oil crises and rising fuel prices.
Ill-prepared for American consumer needs – you know, reliable, quiet, smoke free, easy to start in cold weather, powerful enough to overtake a college kid on a moped – they soon disappeared after fuel prices stabilized.
Read Jay Ramey’s Ten Diesels That Time Forgot, Cough, Cough (Autoweek, March 2, 2015) and you’ll get the picture.
By the 21st century, memories had faded, but in Boomer and Gen X folklore, a vague feeling lingered on that the Klingon Empire must be involved somehow with diesel.
Light duty diesel vehicles in the 2010s: car/pickup culture disconnect
Enter Volkswagen. Again. This time with new technology and cars that drive like a dream.
According to data-mining firm Statista, Americans bought 490,000 diesel-powered light duty vehicles in 2014 – just 3% of the total U.S. market. Of these, industry sources suggest about two-thirds were pickups and vans bought by people and companies with traditional diesel benefits in mind.
That same year, passenger car and SUV diesel sales had climbed to 138,000, almost all from German manufacturers (HybridCars.com).
This contrarian little niche is dominated by the Volkswagen brand family with a 70.1% share; VW (56.3%), Audi (11.4%) and Porsche (2.4%).
This micro-category has little in common with diesel pickup culture. News that Volkswagen misled the EPA and CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned in the wake of the scandal is unlikely to hurt truck sales.
However, diesel passenger cars could take a huge hit for years – as much because of buyer culture as because of technical shortcomings or company wrong-doing.
In one way or the other, most diesel-powered passenger car buyers see themselves as forerunners – a little, shall we say, smarter than their more conventional neighbors when it comes to technology.
When the cloaking device was removed, clean, civil and capable Captain James T. Kirk turned out to be a Klingon after all.
What’s next? Lessons from Boomer-world
Unfortunately for diesel car loyalists hoping for a happy resolution, a precedent is firmly established in the history of Boomer-world. It’s called the rotary engine.
Invented by German engineer Felix Wankel in 1929, and refined by Mazda, the auto industry hoped it could be the salvation for under-powered small cars of the 1970s.
Then, in 1973, a modest little start-up research firm, J. D. Power & Associates, published an independent survey of early buyers of the RX-2 rotary engine model. Full disclosure: your humble scribe was the “associate” … now, those were fun times.
The Los Angeles Times snarked 20% of Mazdas Surveyed Go Boing, Boing Instead of Hmmm, explaining the RX-2 had a surprising level of engine problems after 30,000 miles. It was eventually learned that the O-rings (gaskets) were failing, with devastating results.
Like diesels in the 2010s, the 1970s rotary engine appealed to buyers with a pioneering self-image. Feelings of betrayal exploded when the EPA compounded reliability woes with news that cars provided by Mazda tested clean but only achieved 11 miles per gallon versus the actual use average of 20 mpg reported by survey respondents. Hmmm, indeed.
Neither the EPA nor angry early adopters show mercy to car companies when technology fails to live up to its promises. Only the high performance RX-7 and RX-8 sports models survived the debacle.
Boomers and Gen X may be Volkswagen’s best hope
Like other automakers, Volkswagen seldom depicts Boomers in its advertising. Nor does it directly target older consumers.
But, unique among car brands, VW once enjoyed a close relationship with progressives in the Boomer-Plus Generation™, born 1940-1965. Peace, love, flower power and all that.
In time, we drifted apart as Volkswagen moved on to court younger prospects. Finally, its ads ignored old friends altogether in favor of trendy Millennials.
A rare on-screen sighting of Boomer-Plus consumers occurred in a series of VW commercials featuring a dotty trio of “Old Wives” being educated about diesels by – surprise! – cool young dudes.
Creepy granny-flirting moments were thrown in for good measure. Cringeworthy.
The Old Wives are funny, for sure. But we laughed at them, not with them. Frankly, car buyers over fifty don’t see themselves as uninformed figures of fun, desperate for attention from 30-somethings.
Least of all, Millennials, who, according to a Boston Consulting Group study, place unusually high value on social responsibility when choosing brands (hat tip: Melanie Davis in a MediaPost Engage Millennials column).
So, it’s a good time to restate The American Boomer Wheels Month message for every auto marketer: win a larger share by targeting those 6.9 million Boomer-Plus car buyers.
With a median age of 49.9 years in 2013 (IHS Automotive) half of VW buyers are already in the 50+ space. However, even before dieselgate, the brand couldn’t attract enough of them to meet its ambitious U.S. sales goals.
Now, in addition to keeping existing customers, the Volkswagen challenge is to rekindle old love affairs with under-appreciated and disillusioned Boomers. It won’t be easy.
They may still have warm feelings way down deep but – after all these years of neglect – it will take skilled and honest matchmakers to get them and VW back together.
It’s a long, cold road back: failure to engage Boomers will only make it longer and colder.