See that girl up there? Let’s call her Jackie. Today’s her sweet-sixteen, and she’s at her local dealership with her parents, eager to pick out her very first car. Fast forward a few hours, and Jackie’s driving off into the sunset in a new convertible, top down, music blaring – the iconic American representation of freedom and one that car brands lean into heavily.
The thrill of earning a driver’s license and setting off like Jackie – a rite of passage for most American teens – has been such a staple in our country’s 20th century narrative. This idea of ownership and the independence gained from cars has essentially been passed from one generation to the next. But recently, data has started to demonstrate a waning interest in this ideal. Ownership, which has been so fundamental to the American car culture, is on the decline, and it seems like sharing will become the new norm.
Today, teenagers are no longer seeking the thrill of owning a car. In fact, rates of motor vehicle licensure have plummeted among young Americans. Some studies attribute such changes to economic factors, but others point to the changing values of a new generation. For instance, a recent NPR article reported that millennials and members of Generation Z are more focused on owning tech devices, such as smartphones, than on owning cars. Jill Hennessy, a clinical professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, studies the attitudes of millennials toward the car-buying process. She claims that “[millennials] are much more likely to find value in experiences than they are to find value in things.”
What does this fundamental change mean for car companies? How are they to brand their vehicles as “experiences” rather than simply as “things?”
Some companies are already adapting. Maven, a car sharing app, is a subsidiary of GM. Branding itself as a “mobility service,” Maven seems to be cashing in on this sense of experience in the form of a service rather than as a tangible product that entails ownership. Uber and Lyft have also laid such a significant stake in this market that users are associating themselves with one of the services—Uber or Lyft—rather than individual car brands—like Nissan or Toyota.
Will other car companies follow suit, tailoring a specific service to budding demographics that care more about an experience than an actual product?
The very idea of brand loyalty will likely expand into a kind of fractional ownership. Rather than investing in a single vehicle, users will be investing in an entire brand.
Such a notion runs parallel to the idea of air travel, where consumers buy into a shared brand experience rather than outright purchase a Boeing 737 or an Airbus 321. To attract a certain consumer base, some airlines tout economical options for those who want to save some money, others offer luxurious ones for those who want to relax on their flight, and still others promise reliability for those who have meetings to make and families to see. Likewise, the automotive industry may end up branding itself in order to convey the kind of service it wants to offer, such as scenic avenue branding to tourists or romantic getaways marketed to couples.
Simply put, the very soul of the car is transforming as we speak. In the 19th century, horses were the symbol of transportation – companions to settlers, wagon trains, and cowboys. A century later, the car supplanted the horse. Now, the shift from privately owned, traditional cars to shared and autonomous ones is slowly gaining speed. Consequently, the youth of today are leaving behind a once celebrated rite of passage, and the world at large is set to leave behind a once highly valued idea of ownership. Which car company will own this new form of branding that reflects this big change?
- Kennedy Placek