It seems like many car makers today are failing to target their audience properly with messages that actually work. What do I mean?

 Let’s take a look at the car industry; and to keep it simple, we will stick to the UK for now.

 When did the car industry start to sell hundreds and thousands?

 In the 1970’s and 80’s the major manufacturers had pretty much nailed down the demographics and associated needs of their identified customer bases. For example, Ford had 5 main models:

 Fiesta, Escort, Cortina, Capri, Granada

The Fiesta was an entry level small car that was cheap to buy and run and was aimed at first time buyers (first new car) and families that wanted a second car – usually driven by the wife.

The Escort was bigger and was aimed at young families initially. It was big enough to cope with Dad, Mum and 2 small kids, but was still affordable enough to be within the pocket of most working people. – A secondary target group was the ‘boy racer’ or wannabe rally driver. Ford used the Escort in various guises in motor sport; - think ‘Escort Mexico’ and ‘Escort RS2000’. These were sporty variants that appealed to relatively wealthy younger guys who bought into the whole ‘sporty’ image.

The Cortina was again bigger and more luxurious than the Escort and had 2 distinct markets: It was a great family car and appealed to families that were just a bit older (with bigger kids) and financially better off. It was however the default choice for businesses that had sales people on the road. It became the car of choice for fleet sales and the Cortina was the ‘rep-mobile’ that moved Britain’s sales people up and down the motorway network.

The Capri was Ford UK’s (Europe’s) pitch at creating a sports car. To give us something to rival the Mustang…. But for British roads. – It was actually quite good (even though it was really just a re-bodied Cortina). The later ones with the bigger engines were highly desirable and today are collectors’ cars.

The Granada was at the top of the pile. In low spec – cheaper form – it was the choice of middle managers who wanted to show the world that they had an important job. But it was also the choice of senior managers and business owners who went for higher spec and bigger engines. The top of the range Granada 3.0 litre Ghia was big, powerful, fast and luxurious. It was not as expensive or ostentatious as a Jag, but it still made a big statement. – I am important and successful.

With me so far?

Ford understood their market and customer demographics and needs, and offered products that fitted into each segment. It was easy to craft marketing messages that resonated with each customer segment. Even better, most came with 3 trim options: L, GL and Ghia.

And their competitors did the same. – Vauxhall/Opal (GM) had the Nova, Viva, Cavalier, Manta and Senator.

Life was straightforward and simple for the car marketeers.

Then it all began to change.

Other manufacturers began to take more of an interest in the fast growing UK market; BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Renault Peugeot began to take market share. Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Mazda began to experiment with ‘activity vehicles’. 

When did consumers start to change how they thought about cars?

Activity vehicles began to blur the edges and run interference with the traditional way car models were targeted. – People began to realise that a Toyota ‘Rav 4’ was bigger than an escort, sat much higher and could swallow a lot more luggage; not only that, it could be had with four-wheel drive!

Whatever happened to the 3 box car design?

The established order began to change. Manufacturers began to create models that were very different from the older ‘3 box’ approach. Big SUV’s (sports utility vehicles) appeared, then smaller ones, then ‘crossovers’ (which look like a 4x4 but may in reality only be 2 wheel drive).

Next came ‘people carriers’ – big vehicles that could carry up to 7 people in comfort. – Suddenly there was a huge amount of consumer choice. A vehicle for every lifestyle. And then it went further. Manufacturers started creating lifestyle vehicles that carved out their own niche. – Think Nissan Qashqai.

The old order died. (Probably for the best as far as the consumer is concerned).

However, the casualty in all of this is customer targeting. 

With so many choices, variants and overlaps between sectors and segments, it has complicated the marketeers life in a big way.

Let’s take just one brand – BMW- and look at their model line-up: There is a huge number of models with different variants.

And each variant has several levels such as; Sport, Luxury, M Sport etc.

Yet back in the 80’s BMW had the 3 Series, the 5 Series and the 7 Series (with tourers available later for the 3 and 5).

Undoubtedly BMW’s are more mainstream today with models that appeal to virtually every type of user. They have high build quality and a vast amount of options which allow the customer to personalise his vehicle.

But pity the poor marketeer who is struggling to come up with targeted messages for an ever increasing number of models.

Is brand now more important than customer groups?

Back in the 80’s manufacturers could easily craft advertising messages to reach specific segments of their target audience. – Today the job is much more difficult. Perhaps that’s why so much marketing is spent on promoting the brand, rather than connecting individual models with specific customer types.

There again, the real winner is surely the consumer.

Perhaps though that is a good thing.

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Steve Woods

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I am passionate about helping businesses to grow.

Brand equity comes from delivering high quality products and services to satisfied customers.

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