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Honda's in Hot Pursuit of Gen X

With All the Boomers It Can Handle, Automaker Goes After New Demo

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It seems as if everybody is suddenly chasing boomers -- but not Honda's Accord. With that demographic already firmly in hand, the brand is now turning its attention to Generation X.

The move follows a determination by American Honda Motor Co. and its agency, RPA, Santa Monica, Calif., that there's an untapped opportunity for Gen X and the Accord. David Berne, strategic planning director at the agency, said that although the older members of that demographic are moving into their peak car-buying years, they have yet to form strong brand opinions.

The median age of Accord buyers this year is 54, which is equal to the median age across all midsize-car buyers, according to Alexander Edwards, president of consultant Strategic Vision. (The youngest median age in the segment is 41, for Subaru's Impreza.)

Looking ahead
Mr. Edwards noted that Accord's median buyer is only 10 years older than Gen Xers, who range in age from 30 to 44, and Honda is reaching out to that group. "This is more of a five- to 10-year plan," he said. "This is probably the way most car companies should plan."

Tom Peyton, senior manager-national advertising at Honda Division, said a good chunk of Accord buyers are Gen Xers, and 30% of Accord coupes are sold to people 35 and under. "There's more challenge on the sedan side."

He said Honda is targeting sales of 400,000-plus for both the sedan and the coupe in the first 12 months of the new Accord's arrival, a number he conceded the automaker hasn't hit in the past few years.

The carmaker said Accord sales slid to 354,441 last year from 369,293 in 2005.

Emotional appeal
Before coming to its conclusions, Honda and its agency did both quantitative research with hundreds of consumers and qualitative in-home research with Accord owners, owners of other midsize cars and those who intended to purchase a Honda. They found Gen X buyers have stronger emotional needs than baby boomers when it comes to new-vehicle purchases, Mr. Berne said. Gen X consumers want to be practical and responsible in their purchases but also don't want to wait to enjoy nice things. Gen Xers see a car like the Accord as a signal to the world that they are on their way to success, he said.

All age groups that buy midsize cars are looking to satisfy practical needs such as pricing, size and fuel efficiency, Mr. Berne said. "However, we see a more pronounced emotional appeal from Gen X."

Honda's loyal Accord buyers who discovered the car a couple of decades ago saw the smaller, less luxurious car as a smart choice. Now boomer buyers are more likely to buy the model based on familiarity.

But when it comes to Gen X, the question is: How cool can Accord be if it is driven by their elders?

Style counts
Mr. Edwards said consumers' intensity to fulfill emotional needs like awesome car styling wanes as they age, and Gen Xers have stronger feelings about that than boomers.

Wes Brown, VP of Iceology, said while Gen X and Gen Y will be the dominant buyers of new cars in the next six or seven years, they are not as inspired to own a Honda as they were a decade ago because "the image of the brand is that it is very conservatively styled and conservative in the way it drives."

While Honda has had some success winning back younger buyers with the redesigned Civic small car (which arrived in fall 2005), Mr. Brown said the automaker should push the styling and driving-dynamics envelope further for Accord.

Accord action plan

Honda's challenge: Launch the redone 2008 Accord to a target that isn't traditionally a big buyer of the midsize car. The solution: its largest-ever spending on a new model, emotional creative and media spending that is less TV-centric, said Tom Peyton, senior manager-national advertising.
Tom Peyton, senior manager-national advertising, Honda
Tom Peyton, senior manager-national advertising, Honda

Spots, themed "Beyond the Road," from RPA, Santa Monica, Calif., show the Accord as ELO's "Hold on Tight" plays. Honda aims to reach 90 million people Sept. 12 with a rich-media roadblock on Yahoo, MSN and AOL.

Honda worked with IMDB, and Citysearch to gather their existing content with high Gen X appeal in one place for Accord to sponsor. IMDB is creating a microsite of its video content from 1980s movies. Accord is the charter sponsor of Citysearch's "on the street" videos highlighting local hotspots in top-10 markets. And MTV will have a custom co-branded environment with content including vintage video, movies and music popular with Gen Xers.

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