Like many marketers in the automobile world, Will Travis has a job that’s varied, fast-paced, and challenging. Yet despite the success he’s had in his field, it’s safe to say that comparatively few of his peers would really want to trade places with him. Why, you might ask? Isn’t automobile marketing well-charted territory? A choice between cushy messages of luxury and prestige, or sports sedans spraying 180s in puddles? Well, sure. But Travis isn’t involved in just any automobile marketing. In fact, the sort of work he does virtually assures that the usual lot of advertising content will, in fact, not work. It guarantees frustration, fickleness and endless experimentation. Because, instead of messages about status, luxury or reliability, Travis has to focus on the infinitely more elusive goal of demonstrating that his clients’ cars are “cool.” Travis, this is to say, is marketing cars to young people.

At age 36, Travis, who serves as president of the New York City-based ad firm Attik, is also one of them. The youth market that’s suddenly become Detroit’s darling covers Gen Yers, echo boomers and whatever other names have been developed for the group that stretches from late teens up to age 34—consumers who, in some cases, would define having a set of wheels as owning a skateboard. While automakers have pursued young buyers in the past, many still remain unsure of the best way to do it (The Dodge Neon, now discontinued, was thought to be destined for youth market success in the mid-1990s, but failed to catch on).

Traditional advertising methods themselves—like TV and print ads—don’t always work that well, either. As Travis, who has helped introduce Toyota’s Scion, sums it up: “You cannot grab this audience.”

If that’s true, why are automakers even bothering with this age group, especially when so much more car-buying money rests in the pockets of older boomers? So-called “boomlets”—the generation aged 6 to 25—number 70 million people, many of whom are on the doorstep of becoming full-fledged adult consumers. Auto executives want to establish brand loyalty with this group now, hoping it will carry over into the future when these kids will have more dough to trade up to more expensive models.

The potential market is actually bigger than that. In the car-buying world, “young” is relative. The average new car buyer is in his mid 40s (see chart, page 26), hardly doddering but also not the type who will grab a pacifier and head to an auto industry-sponsored rave. For now, the major manufacturers are attempting to woo them with models that are über-hip yet relatively cheap: cars such as the Pontiac Vibe, the Ford Focus, Chevy’s HHR, the Dodge Caliber and a host of nameplates from Asia. In simplest terms, auto execs and their agency partners are awakening to the fact that, to capture this group, they have do it right. (Another long-ignored but suddenly hot opportunity is the car-buying female. See related story, page 32)

So far, the results have been mixed, which gives some idea of not only why marketing to the youth market is different, but also difficult. One thing that has moved the needle, however, is the tactic of letting the cars market themselves. To do that, automakers have packed the chassis with a wealth of options and gizmos that scream “cool.”

There are other factors to consider: If traditional print and TV ads don’t always speak to youth, what will? Perhaps not surprisingly, many marketers have turned to the Internet as the key way to reach young buyers. But if an automaker elects to buy TV and print space, which should it choose? How should marketers approach the sensitive issue of price? (After all, it’s often parents and not their kids who are doing the financing). At the end of the day, how is a marketer supposed to even talk to this demographic—with respect, irreverence or with something else entirely?

Marketers are discovering that the youth appeal must be created anew, not drawn from an established rulebook. The fact that marketers are still feeling their way to reach the youth market is, according to some observers, the result of halfhearted efforts in the past.

“Until now, I don’t think a company has put the resources and effort into getting this demographic,” said Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis at J.D. Power and Associates’ Power Information Network. “While they want to sell to a wide range of buyers, the common problem with that is, if you communicate with one part of a target market, you can alienate the other. It’s a real conundrum.”

It gets worse. Because of marketing saturation, product placement, the abundance of broadcast ads and more magazines catering to youth, this demographic is seeing more cars than ever before, whether they like it or not. Some pay attention; more move along with nothing more than a passing glance. Automakers are well aware this is a fickle group that finds it easy to say “no” unless something real is presented. As Dan Geist, brand manager for the Ford Fusion, conceded: “We really don’t know what the secrets to this market are.”

That hardly means automakers aren’t trying to find out. To judge from how some of the major automakers are addressing that challenge, it’s obvious that one indispensable component of any youth-targeted marketing plan is to have a cool set of wheels to begin with. Because, while the branding depends heavily on the marketing message, substance has proven to be just as strong a selling point. When the target gets a look at the promise, the design has to offer something that’s worth opening the wallet over. There’s no such thing as too many cool options with which to pack a car—and not your father’s options, either. Heated seats may resonate with the middle-aged crowd, but youth often has other things in mind.

Consider the 2007 Honda Fit. Dealer installed accessories include interior trim accents in silver, red and blue, and interior ambient lighting. Honda also will offer the Honda Apple iPod Music Link as a dealer-installed accessory that allows the user’s iPod (sold separately) to more easily access the audio system, plus charge its battery. The Fit also can be customized with such tricks as 16-inch alloy wheels, sport exhaust, chrome exhaust tip finisher, rear bumper accents and a sport mesh grille.

For its part, the 2007 Dodge Caliber boasts optional rear-mounted speakers that drop down when the gate is opened, perfect for tailgating parties. Borrowing from the immensely popular Mini Cooper, there’s a chilled glovebox for beverages, a console armrest featuring a flip-up pocket that will cradle an iPod or cell phone, and even illuminated cup holders. Not to be outdone, the 2006 Toyota Scion tC packs a roster of options that include an auto dimming mirror, carbon fiber dash appliqué, license plate frames in various shades, including matte silver, gun metal and chrome black pearl.

How can any automaker be certain that the mere existence of the car will generate buzz? Ask RJ DeVera. At 29, he’s a Honda consultant for the youth market, charged with getting the brand into the hearts and minds of young buyers. The ad campaign for the Fit, from longtime Honda agency RPA in Santa Monica, Calif., kicks off April 20 with a traditional mix of print and broadcast spots, albeit somewhat “unconventional,” said Tom Peyton, head of Honda’s national advertising.

“TV will be a big factor, but not in ways you usually see,” he said. “Think: Many short ads, 5-15 seconds each. If Honda wasn’t a well established product, it would be tough to do these short ads and make them work.”

DeVera already sees evidence that the Fit is getting the attention of the youth market. The car is showing up in message-board discussions, which have become a big way for youth to communicate. “There’s already a group of people who are ready for it and excited about it,” he said.

That’s no accident, according to Al Ries, a partner at marketing consulting firm Ries and Ries, Roswell, Ga., who advises: “Keep media expenditures reasonable, but look to street visibility. A lot of people commute half an hour each way [to work or school] and all they do is look at cars. Cars become traveling billboards.”

Even so, automakers have come to realize that the seen-on-the-street approach is not a complete marketing plan. Direct appeals are required. Some experts, like Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research in Brandon, Ore., claim it’s paramount. When it comes to automakers reaching youth, he said, “It isn’t so much in the design, as it is in the marketing.”

Not only is sending the right message critical, so is sending it through the right medium (TV, outdoor, print ads and events, for example, versus online efforts and strategic product placement).

Regardless of the medium, Travis has developed a set of rules to follow: keep the respect, maintain options when it comes to pitching the market, link a variety of personalities to the brand, and make the message mellow. No hard sells allowed. “You have to show them that there is an alternative,” he said. “This is a group that wants to discover things on its own. They need that secret to pass among themselves.”

To do that, a mélange of alternative marketing techniques has come to the fore, from text-messaging campaigns to five-second broadcast spots.

“You can’t do it with traditional print ads,” said Erich Merkle of consulting firm IRN in Grand Rapids, Mich. “And that drives marketers crazy.”

One of the more erroneous beliefs among car companies, especially the American variety, is that cheap price equals youth-friendly. Wrong. It’s about putting a sheen of cool on the product without appearing to try. As an example, Travis cited the experience of Chrysler, which produced an ad last year that featured 80-year-old Lee Iacocca golfing and getting on with rapper Snoop Dogg.

“That tapped into the hip-hop market,” observed Travis. “This is about getting the product into the hands of key people who have influence with the youth market.”

For every Snoop Dogg/Chrysler campaign, there are a great many others that missed the mark. For example, slapping a cool ad into a spot where kids are unlikely to see it. As George Peterson, president of research firm AutoPacific, Tustin, Calif., put it: “You can sell a young person’s car to an older person, but you can’t sell an old person’s car to a young person.”

In 2003 Toyota trotted out the Matrix, a crossover based on the Corolla sedan, with a tall roofline and a stylish interior. The company thought it to be perfect for that youthful segment of first-time car buyers. The ads were creative and youthfully directed, but placed on prime-time television. Toyota reasoned that parents would see it and think it was a great car for the kids. To the kids, it was just another Toyota, the car their parents already were driving.

The Matrix misfire wasn’t the final word, fortunately. Matrix was produced as part of a joint venture with GM Pontiac’s Vibe, which looked much the same but was marketed via faster-paced ads shown on MTV and other cable networks catering to younger demos with ads that had a reality show bent. Sales for the Vibe were up 9.1% for 2005.

Yet even that tactic has its limits. Despite the MTV placement, Vibe deliveries were down 47.7% in March.

Then there’s the case of the Mitsubishi Eclipse, the low-riding sportster best remembered for featuring a dance tune by the Brit-pop band Dirty Vegas in its advertising. Clearly aimed at young buyers, the catchy TV spots that ran during 2002 created a huge following for Dirty Vegas, but failed to do the same for the Eclipse.

While the Honda Fit has managed to generate some pre-campaign buzz, the heavy lifting is still ahead. “For Gen Xers, the crossovers will either be the next big thing or the next big flop,” said DeVera. “The car companies are really putting a lot into them.”

Crossovers are defined as multi-use, multi-occasion vehicles—the informality and flexibility of which dovetail with the many uses young drivers will press their cars into. The Pontiac Vibe, the Scion, Toyota’s Matrix and the Caliber are all variations on the crossover, which has been identified as the fastest-growing segment across the board, regardless of age. Another thing all these cars have in common is price. DeVera was unbending in telling Honda to keep the base price under $15,000.

If there’s a test case for a marketing campaign that’s been done correctly, the Scion comes close, according to some observers. Scion is not just a cool-looking car, it’s been marketed as part of a cool lifestyle, rather than just flogged with one-liners that marketers hope will resonate with young buyers.

Dawn Ahmed is on her third Scion. The national sales promotional manager for Scion, Ahmed is immersed in the culture of the car, and she maintains that Scion is a lifestyle rather than just a vehicle. How to get that message across? “We coordinate 100 events a month ourselves, then work with the regions on more events,” said Ahmed, who at 36 is a bit above the median Scion buyer’s age of 31.

The events are low-level branding, maybe a banner at a club show, some brochures that advertise merchandise giveaways, or a Scion logo on a flier for a local concert. “We keep going back to places that work, and we often work with local musical talent to get the name around, and we try to focus on people who are close to the community,” Ahmed said.

Scion introduced two concepts at the 2002 New York Auto Show and promised to court the 16-24 set through private concerts, indie film premieres, hipster-designed Web sites, band-styled T-shirts with the Scion logo and CD releases.

Scion has bought time on 14 cable networks ranging from MTV to the International Channel. But, heeding the rules of Travis and Attik, the spots are subtle and savvy. There is no overt call-out for Scion, and even the name of Toyota is rarely evoked. Instead, the ads feature plenty of jump cuts and flashy color. (According to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, Scion spent $25 million on cable advertising in 2005, 68% of its total TV ad expenditure of $37 million.)

With that approach, Scion claims it has achieved the market awareness so many other brands covet. The company doesn’t sell a ton of units, but it does one better: It gets the attention of young, would-be buyers, who are—management hopes—more likely to stay with the brand if they buy as emerging consumers. Not that actual cars aren’t moving: Scion sold 156,485 units last year, a 58% jump over 2004.

In Detroit, a similar approach is being taken by marketers of the 2007 Dodge Caliber campaign, handled by BBDO Worldwide. Caliber will spend 20% of its ad budget on the Internet at youth-oriented hangouts like, and The Caliber effort carries a simple tagline—”Anything But Cute”—a very deliberate attempt to shake off any lingering impressions created by the outgoing Dodge Neon.

“The ads have to offer both content and technology,” said George Murphy, Chrysler Group svp-global marketing. “Establishing a presence in this market is too important, and we are going to be disproportionately heavy on this segment. We need to nail this one.”

The marketing effort for Caliber consists of interactive spots, including Web ads, gaming and online activities; and, partnerships with media partners, including Comedy Central. The ads, unlike those of other models, seek to create a delinquent aura (the “Copier” spot, for example, shows a Caliber in an office setting with its rear end parked on top of a copy machine) with print spots in magazines like Spin.

Which is telling. Music may well be the remedy that cures all marketing ills (or most of them) when it comes to reaching young buyers, according to Ford’s Geist, who is in a position to know. The Ford Fusion marketing plan has bet heavily on the timeless relationship that young people have with their tunes. The approach taken to push the sedan was flash concerts, a Web site where surfers can mix their own tapes, and teaming up with an obscure Norwegian band, Hurrah Torpedo, to show the Fusion on its Web site. “Almost anything we do with the Fusion will have something to do with music,” Geist said.

Ford uses its primary ad agency, JWT, for the Fusion’s advertising, despite the product’s new approach and new ad mix, but says the decision was important. “It’s up to top management to drive an agency to expand beyond the traditional reach,” Geist said. “And I think JWT has delivered.”