Automakers Are Talking About Next Generation

An influx of value and crossover vehicles geared to younger audiences are entering the market in the next nine months and could strongly alter the face of auto advertising in 2006, according to attendees at the North American International Auto Show here last week.

“The entry-level segment is going to be an all-out war,” said Rob Schwartz, executive creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., whose client Nissan will introduce the $13,000 Versa in May. “There’s a real opportunity for some automaker to become the icon of the segment.”

Also arriving this year are Toyota’s Yaris, Honda’s Fit, and domestic entries such as Dodge’s Caliber hatchback and a handful of lower-priced crossovers (CUVs), small SUV-like bodies built on car platforms—many of which boast such youthful features as laptop shelves and iPod connectivity.

J.D. Power & Associates reports the CUV segment has grown from 16 percent to 43 percent of SUV sales in just five years. Ford research predicts CUVs to shoot past a falling SUV curve, reaching more than 2.4 million units by year’s end. Both Ford and its subsidiary Mazda, which introduced the CX-7 CUV, have stakes in the race. Ford introduced its CUV, the Edge, which features a “panoramic vista” glass roof at the auto show.

Ford predicts, with half of America expected to be urban by 2010, that small cars with large-car features will take off. “Mark my words,” said Mark Fields, evp of Ford Motor Co., earlier this month. “Small is big in America—particularly among the under-30 set. Like crossovers, small cars are ripe for bold design and innovation.”

“We call them Killer B’s,” said Daniel Gorrell, partner at consultancy Strategic Vision in San Diego. “The trend toward smaller, B-segment cars is different than in the past, in that they are more functional and have a roomier feel. And the pricing is inexpensive, so it’s a natural for marketing to youth.”

As these new, lower-priced entries hit the showroom, marketers foresee “edgier” youth-oriented ads and nontraditional media strategies will follow. “The next big market coming is the echo boomers,” said Tom Peyton, Honda’s senior manager of national advertising, Torrance, Calif. “It will be further reinforcement of the need to experiment and try new media, because the echo boomer doesn’t watch TV as the last generation did. Second, it will change the type of creative you’ll see. It will have a more youthful tone, edgier, with the morals of that generation reflected, and advertising will be pushing the envelope. I’m not a big fan of the Carl’s Jr. advertising, but that will give you a sense of the direction.”

Peyton pointed to recent ads for Element by Honda’s agency, independent RPA in Santa Monica, Calif., based on an animation style reminiscent of South Park. The Internet spots played so well online, they were moved to TV.

Fit’s launch in early spring will be bolstered by more event and experiential marketing, said Peyton. And for Toyota’s new FJ Cruiser SUV, the automaker plans to meet young men where they live: off-air and off-road. Sources said Toyota plans to deploy “trail teams” of FJ riders who will show up at popular trail heads, ready to show off.

Competing with Toyota’s entry-SUV RAV4 relaunch, DaimlerChrysler’s Jeep division styled the lines of the new Compass to appeal to young women.

“We see Compass as the gateway to the brand, from a styling and price point,” said Michael Berube, Jeep senior brand manager. “The advertising, whether online, print or mass media, will clearly appeal to youth based on the product.”

TBWA\C\D’s Schwartz is skeptical. “There will be a lot of talk about nontraditional, and then finally a rush to TV,” he said, “with a flood of dollars going from the large SUV and truck side to sedans.”