Data show that young consumers do not care much about cars, so
General Motors has brought in an MTV-affiliated marketing firm to
help it find ways to make its products seem hipper.
Ross Martin, 37, is a published poet and a former drummer in an alternative rock band. In Nike high tops and jeans, he is the kind of person who would not attract a second glance on most of the funkier streets of America.
But on a chilly afternoon here last month, he managed to attract a few odd looks as he walked across the 24th floor of General Motors' global headquarters. Mr. Martin is the executive vice president of MTV Scratch, a unit of the giant media company Viacom that consults with brands about connecting with consumers. He and his team are trying to help General Motors solve one of the most vexing problems facing the car industry: Many young consumers today just don't care that much about cars.
That is a major shift from the days when the car stood at the center of youth culture and wheels served as the ultimate gateway to freedom and independence. Young drivers proudly parked Chevrolet Impalas at a drive-in movie theater, lusted over cherry-red Chevrolet Camaros as the ultimate sign of rebellion or saved up for Volkswagen Beetles on which to splash bumper stickers and peace signs. Today, Facebook, Twitter and text messaging allow teenagers and 20-somethings to connect without wheels. High gasoline prices and environmental concerns do not help matters.
"They think of a car as a giant bummer," Mr. Martin said. "Think about your dashboard. It's filled with nothing but bad news."
There are data to support Mr. Martin's observations. In 2008, 46.3 percent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had a driver's license, compared with 64.4 percent in 1998, according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, and drivers 21 to 30 years old drove 12 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 1995. Forty-six percent of drivers 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car, according to the research firm Gartner.
Car cultures endure in suburban and rural areas, but automobiles have fallen in the public estimation of younger people. In a survey of 3,000 consumers born from 1981 to 2000 -- the generation marketers call millennials -- Scratch asked which of 31 brands they preferred. Not one car brand ranked in the top 10, and those brands lagged far behind companies like Google and Nike.
The five-year strategic vision that Scratch has developed for Chevrolet, which had been kept quiet until now, stretches beyond marketing to a rethinking of the company's corporate culture. The strategy is to infuse General Motors with the same insights that made MTV reality shows like "Jersey Shore" and "Teen Mom" breakout hits.
Mr. Martin calls the G.M. headquarters the Death Star, after the space station the Emperor built in "Star Wars." He says he understands the unlikely melding of cultures he is trying. "We know we're people who don't fit in here," he said.
The partnership is intended to transform things as diverse as the milieu at the company's steel-and-glass headquarters, the look of its Chevrolet cars, the dealership structure and the dashboard technology. Even the test drive is being reimagined, as young consumers find riding in a car with a stranger creepy, Scratch said.
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