Boomers and Minivans: Listerine On Wheels Or Cupcakes?

Boomers must have loved minivans … well, comme ci, comme ςa 

There’s a popular misconception that Boomers and older Gen Xers must have loved minivans. Just look at the numbers: over 20 million were sold between 1985 and 2005.

Plymouth Voyager 1984When Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan arrived in 1983, except for the VW van – sales of which were only 14,700 that year (HT – there was no such category as “minivan.”

Thanks to their brilliant design brief, the Chrysler twins were pretty much an instant hit; they sold 210,000 units in their launch year, more than doubling to 474,000 by 1987.

US Minivan sales 1983-2015Competitors soon jumped in; by 1991 U.S. consumers could choose from 21 different models, and sales had pushed past one million units.

The peak year was 2000 (1.37 million), but sales still topped 1.1 million in 2005 before a steep decline back to late-80s levels today.

Conventional wisdom claims that mommy-mobile imagery has finally marginalized the minivan to those who – ugh! – actually like that sort of thing. The truth is that a solid block of buyers don’t like minivans all that much.

Even in their heyday, there was major resistance. Many buyers were drawn – kicking and screaming – by their logical left brains to a utilitarian purchase that gave their emotional right brains the shivers.

Freud would have understood. Consider the ingrained van imagery that prowled through prospects’ nightmares in the mid-1980s …

Vans were for – choose your poison: blue-collar work; neo-rednecks à la Ford Club Wagon (see below, outside a gun store); hippies; party animals in gaudy rolling bachelor pads that sent fathers reaching for their shotguns when the boogie-wagon arrived to pick up Cindi, Debbi or Traci for a date.

1970s Vans

Minivan culture: from cupcakes to Listerine on wheels

Back in the day, most early minivan advantages were practical rather than emotional:

  • Mask_comedyVisibility/control: sit higher than in a car – the command position
  • Car-like handling and fuel efficiency vs. classic station wagons
  • Big side door: easy to load children and attach their car-seats
  • Removable rear seats: accommodate occasional bulky items
  • Hatchback and low load height: great for all kinds of family “stuff”
  • Pass-through: mom could move front to back to tend to kids

However, aside from full size van imagery, there were ’80s era emotional barriers:

  • Mask_tragedyDetroit: many ’80s yuppies previously owned on-trend imports
  • Brand: after a major financial crisis, Chrysler cachet was at low ebb
  • Reliability: usual new model jitters overlaid on Chrysler survivability
  • I’m a boring parent” signal: no more harmless stoplight flirtations
  • Hatchback: strong associations with cheap econo-boxes of the era
  • Boxy, dated lines in a world that was rapidly going aerodynamic.

Minivan buyer attitudes spanned a continuum running from cupcakes to Listerine on wheels. Depending on our kids’ behavior on any given day, most of us skittered back and forth between the two zones.

Cabbage Patch Kids spreadIn the cupcakes zone, moms and dads not only embraced their fate as parents but actually reveled in it.

For them, the minivan symbolized family-first – old-fashioned and corny, perhaps, but warm and fuzzy. McDonald’s Happy Meals and cupcakes, S’mores and hot chocolate. What could be nicer?

ListerineThe Listerine mouthwash slogan The taste you hate twice a day could have been written for reluctant minivan buyers; we need it but, yuk, we hate the way it tastes!

When SUVs boomed and added third row seating, by 2000 many “Listerine” buyers who could afford to switch did so – gratefully.

But the key word is “afford.” To get comparable interior volume in an SUV meant, and still means in 2016, a major jump in price. Minivan world remained a schizophrenic place where many still drive the taste they hate twice a day.

For more on SUVs/CUVs, visit How Boomers And Gen X Invented The SUV – And Can’t Let Go.

GM’s “Dustbuster” minivans: the naivety of accepting easy answers

Here at the 15th Nation we’re into Boomer-speak – seemingly so easy to understand but, in reality, complex and steeped in secret code.

Misinterpreting Boomer-speak is nothing new. GM did so big-time when they decided to enter the minivan segment.

Their planners listened to Chrysler owner complaints – boxy, van-ish, uncool – and they smiled. Such an easy language. Got it. Dude, no problemo.

DustbustersThe solution: Chevy Lumina APV, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette. All had nifty, evocative names and swoopy, space age styling. Jokers would come to call them “Dustbuster” minivans, after the famous compact vacuum cleaner.

Focusing on consumer feelings was misleading. Reluctant buyers still favored Chrysler minivans in spite of their emotions because, after thinking, they made a practical decision.

You see, that long-nosed, swoopy space-age styling resulted in vans that were longer than the extended Grand Caravan/Voyager but – a doozy – had only about the same interior space as the compact Caravan version.

Minivan dimensions

Disclosure: in 1990, your humble scribe strategized for Chrysler and watched owners ooh and aah over GM’s cool styling before sobbing over the specs. In this category, utility trumps styling. Si hay un problema.

The Dustbuster minivans were gone in six years. The vacuum cleaner is still around.

Boomer-speak 2016: the naivety of accepting easy answers

Research routinely confirms the obvious family-stage appeal of the category; data from J. D. Power and TrueCar suggests half or more buyers are aged 30-50.

Most analysts jump to the easy answer: Gen X is the sweet spot. Well, yes, if we just focus on first time buyers. But the bigger picture is that Boomer-Plus also represents a huge segment.

Keep calm and drive a minivan after 50In fact, surveys show the median minivan buyer age is between 45 and 50; Power published the following median ages for the market leaders in 2009.

  • Midsize Van Segment: 50 years
  • Dodge Grand Caravan: 52 years
  • Chrysler Town & Country: 51 years
  • Toyota Sienna: 48 years
  • Honda Odyssey: 43 years

Any way you slice it, the 50+ buyer – older Gen X parents and Boomer-Plus grandparents – represents close to half the market.

Toyota SiennaBut you’d never know that from the 18-49 demo fixation in most minivan advertising, brochures and websites.

You’ll see lots of little kids, sure, and – huh? – cool millennial chicks (you go girl, look how many H&M bags you can stack in that cargo area). OK, we get it, and Toyota Sienna market share is growing in tough times, but how about some gray hairs too?

Cupcake bright ideaAfter all, in a reduced and more competitive market, it make sense for all brands to target the most committed customers in the category – we of the grandparent persuasion. We don’t need to be sold on cupcakes minivans … but we do need to know why YOUR cupcake minivan beats THEIR cupcake minivan.

One challenge – as GM discovered – is that authentic Boomer-speak is a hidden language. The few adland attempts to engage consumers over fifty usually get the accents, idioms and inflexions wrong.

The no problemo syndrome – the naivety of dealing in easy answers – is alive and well.

Too bad. Americans over fifty represent the third largest economy in the world and buy half of all new vehicles sold in the US – including well over 200,000 minivans in 2016.

When the idea of actively targeting the 50+ space goes viral, marketers will be scrambling for a crash course in Boomer-speak. Fortunately, we offer translation services … and we’ll provide the cupcakes. Any flavor you want.

Opportunity_Cupcake heaven

Boomer - neXt SM logo_MMOriginally published as a Boomer-Plus Consulting Group post; in September, 2017, we up-branded as Boomer / neXt to welcome the 4 million Gen Xers who join the Boomers in the 50+ space each year.

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