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EVENT TIES REV UP FOR LUXURY BADGES DIRECT MAIL WORKS WHERE `EVERYTHING'S UP FOR GRABS'

By Published on .

Marketing to the wealthy of this country once was easy for automakers.

The profile of the wealthy was pretty standard: income of $70,000 and up, age 55 and up, mostly white and, most importantly, wedded to the purchase of a luxury sedan.

Advertising and marketing cars to this group usually revolved around direct attempts at showing a lifestyle the wealthy enjoyed while driving plushly appointed vehicles.

But like most of the demographic groups car companies are now striving to reach, the profile has changed. Affluent buyers have become so diverse that marketing to them is no longer an easy matter.

Nearly all the executives of car companies that market vehicles to this group are realizing that selling to the wealthy involves more than ads depicting the spoils of luxury. Alternative methods, such as event sponsorships and direct-mail campaigns, are even being employed here.

"We've always felt that the affluent are some of the most difficult people to reach," says Rich Anderman, national marketing manager for Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus division.

"Essentially, everything's up for grabs," says Tom Healy, a partner at auto market researcher J.D. Power & Associates. Unlike in previous car-buying generations, today's wealthy comprise "a group that's hard to make generalizations about."

(Among the few accepted rules of thumb: The incidence of buying new cars in homes of incomes of $75,000 to $100,000 is higher than in a home of an income of $100,000 and up.)

The affluent car buyer today is made up of both older and younger buyers, white and minority and, most important, people who aren't sold on any particular luxury vehicle or sedan. Despite the diversity of this group, wealthy buyers fall into two loosely defined groups: the traditional buyer who purchases traditional large, luxury American cars, and the younger buyer who is interested in import-styling cars.

"The affluent car buyer is not always a luxury car buyer," Mr. Healy notes. "Sport utility vehicles are actually replacing luxury [cars]; it's almost a fashion statement. It's something you should consider when you have a luxury car to market."

With luxury cars serving as a fashion statement as well as a method of transportation, it would seem to make sense for auto marketers to appeal to these consumers' lifestyles through sponsorships of cultural events and targeted mail campaigns.

"They're not tied as much to traditional media. We've felt it was like getting them from under rocks," Mr. Anderman says.

Since its inception in 1989, Lexus has used non-traditional ways of reaching customers, such as cultural and sporting events. Traditional advertising, of course, has been part of the mix (from Team One Advertising, El Segundo, Calif.).

Mr. Anderman points out that its sponsorship of a skiing event in Colorado, in which Lexus owners are invited to spend an all-expenses paid weekend, is a "tremendous tiebreaker" when more attributes of upscale vehicles are similar.

And as Lexus turns its efforts from conquering to retaining buyers, the car company still is looking beyond traditional advertising. Plans are in the works, though Mr. Anderman declined to elaborate.

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