Electric Cars For Headlines, Trucky Cars For Profits

When truck world and the Boomers were young

chevy-truck_1951Until the mid-sixties, truck-world was a manly, grimy place. We talkin’ work here, people. Sure, huntin’ an’ fishin’ an’ rock-houndin’ on the weekend, but mostly it was work – rugged, hard and plenty of it.

Then the civilians started to pay attention when Ford and Chevrolet launched new recreational/off-roaders to compete with Jeep. By 1970 the seeds of the sports utility market were firmly planted, with young Boomers on the leading edge and eager to push the envelope.

Off-roading 1970sOf course, those days, most of us couldn’t afford new vehicles, but we sure jumped on used ones – Jeeps, El Caminos, Land Cruisers, Bronco IIs, hacked 4X4 pickups and dune buggies reworked from cut-down Volkswagens.

Just as heartland America – Detroit’s home turf  – was slow to recognize the counter-culture appeal of small foreign cars to Boomers, bi-coastal sophisticates were equally confused by the down-home macho allure of trucks and vans and the inner cowgirl yeehah! of SUVs.

So, for a while, these competing consumer cultures settled into a kind of stalemate; from 1970 to 1980, the share of light truck sales barely changed (18% vs. 22%).

stork-delivery_rightBut by 1990, truck-based products had jumped to one third of the market (34%). We used-to-be non-conformist Boomers were settling down and starting families – note to Millennials, you can’t fight Mother Nature. But we still looked for ways to have it all – dare-to-be-different style, active imagery and family practicality.

This time Detroit was quick to sense the opportunities presented by Boomer and older Gen X consumers, and the Big Three set about creating a more friendly truck-world. In fact, U.S. brands were so successful that by the mid-nineties, they were fighting off import manufacturers pouring into that most American of American vehicle categories, the U.S. military Jeep-inspired SUV marketplace.

Fast forward. In 2016 just a sprinkling of truck/SUV pixie dust was enough to propel even mini-size vehicles to sales success; for the first time in U.S. history, light trucks exceeded a 60% market share (61%).

  • light-vehicle-sales_1970-20161970: light truck share – 18%
  • 1980: light truck share – 22%
  • 1985: light truck share – 30%
  • 1990: light truck share – 34%
  • 1995: light truck share – 43%
  • 2000: light truck share – 51%
  • 2005: light truck share – 56%
  • 2010: light truck share – 52%
  • 2016: light truck share – 61%

Whats hot and whats not: CUVs are smokin’

Although the top three best-selling vehicles in 2016 were full-size domestic pickups, SUVs were far more popular as a category: at 6.93 million units they edged out passenger cars (6.89 million) for top spot in the overall market.

light-vehicle-sales-2016_by-categoryThe big story –  actually compact story – is that compact and crossover utility vehicles (CUVs) dominated SUV sales (81%); in fact, one third (32%) of all U.S. light duty vehicle sales in 2016 were crossovers/CUVs.

But don’t get the idea these are all little low-end wannabes. Over 800,000 crossover and compact SUV sales came from luxury brands (GoodCarBadCar). So, no matter how foul the weather or treacherous the road conditions, those late-adopting sophisticates can power through to the Saks Fifth Avenue valet parking in style, comfort and safety.

Crossovers for profit: electric vehicles for clickbait

Despite the soaring popularity of crossovers, the PR value of this glittering motherlode of profit dims in comparison with that of the tiny electric vehicle niche.

Not to be misunderstood, we think electrics are great: the technology is fascinating, their off-the-line acceleration is exhilarating and, clearly, they are the next big thing. One day. But first, there are the harsh realities of 260 million gasoline/diesel powered vehicles already on U.S. highways and a 100-year supply of fossil fuels to be factored into the mix.

magnifying-glass-dudeIn truth, the ability of EVs to grab headlines is more a testament to auto-makers’ compliance with government mandates than to market forces. Although 2016 was a record year for battery-only electric vehicles (BEVs), just 86,000 were sold. With Tesla taking 55% and second place Nisan Leaf at 16%, that left 29% for ten other models to fight over. Slim pickings, but enough to win e-cred from regulators.

Purists may cringe, but in addition to true BEVs, 73,000 plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) were also sold under the electric car banner in 2016 (data: Inside EVs). These vehicles qualify for EV tax subsidies, but only achieve an anemic battery driving range of around 20 cautious miles before good ol’ gasoline comes to the rescue.

ev-sales_2011-2016-by-stateBetween 2011 and 2016 Americans bought a grand total of 503,000 BEVs and PHEVs, about half (49%) in California where state regs are especially draconian enlightened and thought-leading professionals – you know who you are – relish the cachet of adding an EV to their personal portfolios (sales data: EV Volumes).

Realpolitik bottom line: crossovers for profit, electric vehicles for clickbait.

Advice to creative automakers: the 50+ consumer can boost brand share 

Boomer men and women – plus older Gen Xers who are now crossing the fiftieth birthday threshold at the rate of 4 million a year – have disrupted the automobile business ever since they began to drive. However, from “small foreign cars” to “down-market trucks” to early adoption of Asian luxury brands, the play-it-safe, status quo marketing crowd dissed us every step of the way.

Now we are leaving the 18-49 demographic, the meme is that we’re too old to switch brands – conveniently ignoring the median age of new vehicle buyers (over fifty) and the fact that the EV segment relies on us for about half the business.

This oddball thinking is in eerie sync with the automobile market itself: like trucks, Gen X and the Boomers generate the lion’s share of the profits but, like EVs, the Millennials get most of the attention.

peter-fonda_mb-2016So let’s give credit to a rare exception to Madison Avenue myopia.

Mercedes’ upcoming Super Bowl ad features Peter Fonda – who turns 77 this year – in a spot made by Boomers (the Coen Brothers) for Boomers … HT Advertising Age.

The key thought here: by Boomers for Boomers. No offense intended –  we love our kids –but just because the average 28-year-old ad agency creative team spent the first few years of life in the back seat of a minivan or SUV doesn’t mean they can see Boomer-world through their windshield today.


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