Scion Targets an Ever-Younger Consumer -- 8 to 15 Years Old

Tween Denizens of Whyville Get Lessons in Car Buying, Financing

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The deal: Earlier this year, Toyota's Scion division brokered an exclusive deal with social-networking site to sell cars to 8- to 15-year-olds.

The result: Online "sales" are taking off on the site and giving Scion an edge over other automakers looking to target younger consumers.

Young children can buy a virtual Scion in the virtual world of Whyville. If they don't have enough 'clams' to do so, they can finance a Scion xB and learn about interest rates, down payments, credit histories and leasing, courtesy of Toyota.

It's no secret that Toyota's Scion division has been targeting young consumers with its lineup of customizable vehicles. But just how young? Try 8- to 15-year-old kids and teens.

In April, Scion partnered with to become the exclusive automotive partner of the social-networking site. As part of the deal, members can buy and customize their own boxy Scion xBs and use them to cruise around Whyville. The vehicles not only serve as transportation tools; the interiors of the cars are also chat rooms.

Whyville: A marketer's destination

The site now has 1.7 million members -- mostly kids ages 8 to 15 -- and is quickly becoming an attractive destination for marketers to target a hard-to-reach audience that has major influence on what parents purchase. Members (there are twice as many girls as boys) spend an average of three hours per month on the site.

Unlike other social-networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Friendster, Whyville is set up as a cartoony virtual world where its members interact with others through avatars, or animated characters. They travel to various locations around a virtual island that includes a beach, museum, city hall and town square, as well as its own suburbia., a division of Numedeon, was founded in 1999 by three scientists from Caltech and an artist from Pasadena Art Center College of Design, mainly as an educational site where children could play games and learn about things such as nutrition and art. They brokered sponsorships with Adobe, Getty, NASA, the University of Texas and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, among others.

Sought out by advertisers

"As a result, the emphasis on sales and marketing wasn't there until recently," said Jay Goss, chief operating officer of "We've only woken up to the fact. The marketers came to us instead of us going to the marketers."

As part of its deal with Whyville, Scion set up Club Scion, a destination where members can hang out and purchase their own Scions. Specific financials of the deal were not disclosed, but Scion is paying Whyville based on the number of visitors the site attracts per month.

Scion's strategy quickly started to pay off.

In the first 10 days of the Toyota campaign, the word "Scion" was used over 78,000 times in chats. That's grown to over 200,000 times since it was launched three months ago. Club Scion was visited 33,741 times in the first 10 days. To date, Whyvillians have purchased more than 1,200 Scions and gone on 140,000 rides in their cars.

Toyota recently expanded its involvement with Whyville.

Learning about interest rates, car payments

Earlier this month, the company's Toyota Financial Services division launched Scion Solutions to give Whyville's members the chance to finance a Scion xB and learn about interest rates, down payments, credit histories and leasing. A virtual Toyota Financial Services adviser walks them through the loan process and helps them learn about their "WhyCO" scores, similar to a FICO score.

Previously, only members with enough "clams," Whyville's virtual currency, could purchase Scions and add on elements such as spoilers, roof racks with snowboards, and turbo chargers, wings and hood ornaments. Citizens now have the opportunity to finance one through Scion Solutions. Those who default on their loans have their cars repossessed.

Days after opening, the Scion Solutions office had already approved several thousand loans.

Whyville executives welcomed Scion because it was looking for a way to educate kids on what it takes to own a car. They felt kids wouldn't learn unless they cared about the topic. In Whyville, owning a Scion is considered cool.

Consider a conversation that appeared on the site between two members:

Floz24: "I'm working for a Scion"

Mo0d1y: "I want a Scion soo bad"

Floz24: "I'm gonna work in cafeteria and earn, even if it takes ages"

*Player driving a Scion appears on screen*

Floz24: "Invite me for a ride PLEAZE!"

Mo0d1y: "Pleeeeeeease, can I get a lift, I luv ur Scion"

Mr. Goss said Whyville's executives had been looking for a way to integrate cars into the site for some time.

Real automaker adds authenticty

"There are two things on the mind of a 12- or 15-year-old," he said. "The one thing we can't talk about because their hormones are kicking in. The other is they can't wait to drive. We could have opened up Acme Car Land and done a generic job at introducing kids to cars. But the question in our mind was, what if we bring in a sponsor, and in addition to getting their checkbook, we get their expertise? It adds a certain authenticity to the site that makes it better for the kids."

But Scion executives stressed that they didn't want their integration to appear too commercial.

"We felt that we would have to put the brakes on them a lot to make sure it wasn't commercial or predatory," Mr. Goss said. "But it was more of a concern for Scion than it was for us."

Whyville has started to talk to other marketers about ways to integrate their brands into the virtual world. But it doesn't plan to make a deal with another car partner.

"I don't know who else could be more perfect," said Mr. Goss of Scion. "If you're looking for a car company, no one else gets it like Scion when it comes to youth marketing. We have no interest in opening up a second dealership. If Chrysler came to us with $1 million, we'd say no. We don't need auto row in Whyville."

Selling actual cars

Whether Scion is selling actual cars as a result of the online effort remains to be seen. Either way, it's still planting a seed among soon-to-be first-time drivers.

Scion has officially said it's using the site and other nontraditional marketing methods as a way to develop "relationships with future car buyers," said Deborah Senior, national marketing and communications manager for Scion.

"We'd like to have educated customers down the road, and this program is a terrific opportunity to help tweens understand the process of financing a vehicle, everything from interest rates to FICO scores to repaying the loan," said Maria Tirado, interactive marketing manager for Toyota Financial Services. "TFS wanted to be able to represent that for kids."
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