CAR OWNER'S BOND STRONGER WITH AGE

BUT SEGMENTS OF YOUTHFUL BUYERS PROVE LOYAL, TOO; JUST ASK TOYOTA, HONDA

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Respect your elders.

Carmakers would be well advised to follow that credo, according to the results of a recent survey on car owner brand loyalty.

The most critical factor in determining car owner loyalty is age, according to an exclusive survey commissioned by Automotive News and Advertising Age.

The survey, conducted by consumer researcher J.D. Power & Associates, covers the top 20 car makes by unit volume. Consumers contacted had registered a new car between April 1991 and October 1992 (see box at right).

Survey results found the oldest customers are twice as loyal to the make as the youngest customers, and they also were more loyal to the salesman and dealership.

According to the report, "Younger [car buyers] want to move upmarket, hence they may be inherently disloyal. [They] may want to try another make simply for comparison."

Younger generations "were raised in a different time period. They're not ever going to be as loyal" as the older ones, says Carol Onoda, group director at Power.

Sitting at the head of the customer loyalty list are rival marques Lincoln and Cadillac.

Lincoln ranked No.*1 in the survey, with 73% of owners saying they intended to purchase the same make. Cadillac placed third, at 71.1%. The overall survey figure was 62.6%.

In addition, at least 80% of Lincoln and Cadillac owners said they were loyal to their respective brands. The survey average was 78%.

Both marques tied Buick for having the oldest median owner age, at 65.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Buick seems to have its own devoted following. Some 70.9% of Buick owners intended to purchase the same make, and 80.1% of surveyed owners described themselves as loyal to the brand.

Still, Cadillac ranked first in several other loyalty measures. Among the measured brands, Cadillac had the biggest percentage of owners whose current car replaced one of the same make, and the same with owners who say they'll definitely buy the same brand.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, unhappy owners of Lincoln and Cadillac first think of the other brand when considering a new car. The owners of each brand's cars are similar in income, gender split and age, and each brand is a destination people aspire to.

"There is no where else to go," says the Power report.

Income is less a factor than age on loyalty. Under-30 buyers had a median household income of $47,400, higher than the 50-plus group with its retirees.

Cadillac and Lincoln owners have median household incomes over $70,000. Only Acura is higher, at $85,000.

Aside from connecting owner age with brand loyalty, the study found most car owners are happy with their cars and expect to buy that brand again.

A whopping 90.1% are satisfied with their cars, and 62.6% said they definitely or probably would buy the same brand next time.

Other Power surveys, including the 1994 Vehicle Performance Satisfaction and Vehicle Dependability Satisfaction, show the same result.

Three brands, Saturn, Honda and Toyota, recorded not just high customer loyalty but a young owner base.

With a median age of 45, Toyota buyers might buy five new cars before they are 65, the median age of Lincoln, Cadillac and Buick owners.

With Saturn, GM clearly has a challenge to keep its young buyers as customers. The main alternate brand for dissatisfied Saturn customers is Ford, which is using techniques like leasing to promote customer loyalty.

Whether any of these brands can keep their customer bases as these owners age and start looking up-market remains to be seen.

The Saturn, Toyota and Honda threesome also leads the list for highest percentage of women owners.

Women in the survey were satisfied and loyal at the same rate as men, but they were less likely to have purchased the same brand before.

That probably reflects the presence of more women in the new car market who had not been there before. Some 5% of the women in the survey were in their first new car, compared to 2% of the men.

Overall, domestic brands fared better in the survey than Japanese brands in repurchase intentions, even though customer satisfaction was slightly higher for the Japanese.

One Japanese make, Toyota, featured the biggest portion of satisfied owners (95.8%) and customers who say they're loyal to the brand (86.8%). It also ranked second in percentage of customers intending to buy the same make.

But Japanese nameplates occupied three of the bottom five slots on the list of customers intending to purchase the same make. In comparison, U.S. marques held five of the top six positions on this list. Among domestic brands, Oldsmobile customers are the most satisfied with their cars, followed by Saturn. The Olds phenomenon is no doubt related to the collapse of its sales in the late '80s. Buyers who stuck with Olds in the April 1991 to October 1992 period were loyalists; the rats had already left the ship.

One possible reason for the performance by Japanese makes could involve their dealers.

For those who said they would definitely buy from the same dealership again, nine of the top 10 makes were domestic, and for repurchasing from the salesperson, all 10 top positions were domestics. Slightly more owners of Asian makes than domestics would like more contact from their selling dealership.

"The Asian makes surveyed need to strengthen on the retail level," concluded the Power researchers.

One Asian marque, the Korean brand Hyundai, clearly has a tough job to keep sales up. Fully 8.5% of its owners were very dissatisfied with the brand, compared with the industry average of 2%, and 13.4% were somewhat dissatisfied, compared with 4.6% for the industry.

Saturn and Mitsubishi owners were least likely to have owned their brand before. Both are young companies.

The Power researchers are emphatic that automakers not rely on loyalty marketing tactics alone.

"Of those surveyed, about 40% were new to the make," says the report.

Working against loyalty are: vehicles that outlast their need, such as a minivan sold when the kids leave home; and product cycles that are longer than an owner's desire to keep his or her car. However, most manufacturers have tailored their loyalty efforts to keep customers loyal to a brand and not necessarily a specific model. Ford is well-versed at this tactic, especially through a leasing plan that promotes the idea of trying different cars.

Another factor working against loyalty: fashion. In fact, a 1993 Power customer satisfaction study found that the leading reason people acquire a different make is to try "a different style."

... About the survey

Automotive News and Advertising Age commissioned J.D. Power & Associates to perform an exclusive national survey of 6,156 car owners who registered new passenger cars between May 1991 and October 1992. We surveyed only the top 20 makes by volume, and where appropriate, results were weighted to reflect relative sales volume during the time covered.

Response rates to mailed surveys ranged from 31% for Hyundai to 55% for Chrysler. Owners were asked about their next-purchase intentions, their history of buying the same brand and their perceptions of their own loyalty. They were also asked about their loyalty to the dealership and the salesman who sold them their car.

Due to state restrictions, buyers in California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Washington and Connecticut were excluded.

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