In 2009, Ford brought its new supermini, the Fiesta, over from Europe in a brave attempt to attract the attention of young Americans. It passed out 100 of the cars to influential bloggers for a free six-month test-drive, with just one condition: document your experience online, whether you love the Fiesta or hate it.
Young bloggers loved the car. Young drivers? Not so much. After a brief burst of excitement, in which Ford sold more than 90,000 units over 18 months, Fiesta sales plummeted. As of April 2012, they were down 30 percent from 2011.
Don’t blame Ford. The company is trying to solve a puzzle that’s bewildering every automaker in America: How do you sell cars to Millennials (a k a Generation Y)? The fact is, today’s young people simply don’t drive like their predecessors did. In 2010, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 bought just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, down from the peak of 38 percent in 1985. Miles driven are down, too. Even the proportion of teenagers with a license fell, by 28 percent, between 1998 and 2008.
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In a bid to reverse these trends, General Motors has enlisted the youth-brand consultants at MTV Scratch—a corporate cousin of the TV network responsible for Jersey Shore—to give its vehicles some 20-something edge. “I don’t believe that young buyers don’t care about owning a car,” says John McFarland, GM’s 31-year-old manager of global strategic marketing. “We just think nobody truly understands them yet.” Subaru, meanwhile, is betting that it can appeal to the quirky eco-conscious individualism that supposedly characterizes this generation. “We’re trying to get the emotional connection correct,” says Doug O’Reilly, a publicist for Subaru. Ford, for its part, continues to push heavily into social media, hoping to more closely match its marketing efforts to the channels that Millennials use and trust the most.