The Formula for Success is Not Obvious in Appealing to Millennials
When Toyota created the Scion brand, the objective was to appeal to younger car buyers, since the mother brand’s audience was older than most of its top competitors. It seems to have been lost on the leadership that Honda Civics made Corollas look/feel/run like granny cars, and that might have contributed, too.
Anyway, Scions were created, including the boxy xB, which then was upstaged by edgier competitors from Nissan and Kia. Toyota then dropped a bigger engine in the xB, which meant gas mileage went all to hell, but the car still ended up appealing to - surprise! - Older folks! Eventually, the geezers apparently lost interest, too, and sales dropped by more than 75%. After a last desperation move of scrapping nearly the whole line and replacing it with “new” cars (Toyota models already available elsewhere in the world and even a Mazda), the big shots in Toyota (headquarters for Toyota-the-car is Toyota-the-city in Japan, in case you didn’t know) threw in the towel last year. A couple of Scion models continue as Toyotas, but the brand is history.
I’ll get to what all this has to do with NASCAR in a minute (or a few paragraphs).
In my last article, I talked about the issue of mainline sports not appealing to younger audiences (sort of like Toyotas). Recently, the NFL, which has this problem like everybody else, decided to end its long ban on end-zone celebrations after touchdowns. I always thought somebody from NASCAR must have had input in that rule, because it was impossible to enforce fairly and consistently. It also obviously was aimed at keeping young people (especially young African-American football players) from acting like their peers, which middle-aged (especially white) football fans didn’t find appealing.
Now the NFL seems to have decided that it NEEDS young fans (all races welcomed) and is willing to accept some diverse behaviors to get them, even if older fans won’t join in the dancing/prancing/theatrics.
I have no problem with the NFL’s decision, but I think it’s like changing your battle strategy three years after the war has ended. If fans have lost interest in pro football, end-zone celebrations are NOT going to bring them back.
Just to quickly return to Toyota, one of the cars that maybe was supposed to be a Scion but was a little late to the party is the CH-R, officially a small SUV, or a “crossover,” if you’re into marketing terminology. This somewhat odd-looking vehicle seems to be another effort to appeal to younger buyers, and it seems to bear a striking resemblance to the Nissan Juke, which has been around for about eight years already and does in fact seem to appeal to the young.
Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like throwing lots of stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks… and the Toyota CH-R doesn’t look very sticky.
Soooo, Frank, what the heck does all this have to do with NASCAR? Everything, if our beloved sport is to be successful at attracting younger audiences in the future when its older audiences (us!) have gone on to better things (theologically speaking).
These are a couple of examples of what NOT to do. Toyota just tried too hard on the marketing end. “Here, millennials, we’re doing all this just for you. Aren’t you impressed? Did you bring your checkbooks with you? Oh, you’re not sure what a checkbook is?”
The NFL, on the other hand, said, “Just to show you how much we love you, we’re going to let you come to our party and not uphold our old fogey dress (behavior) code. Aren’t you appreciative?”
I’m no expert on millennial or Gen X/Y/Z behavior, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t respond positively to those approaches.
So what works? Here, I’ll defer to Mindy Weinstein, a digital marketing agency founder/owner and a professor, and her article about 10 brands that got marketing to millennials right. I like the article, because it cites examples of both products/services that appeal and approaches to marketing existing entities.
Three of the products/services are Chipotle, Netflix and Uber, all of which did something different, breaking existing molds. NASCAR’s move into drone racing might fit in there, but in case that’s not on the horizon… yet… let’s look at a couple of the “approach” examples.
The first is Coke and those bottles with people’s names on them. I find them really annoying (especially since they don’t have “Frank,” apparently), but sales of Coke increased by 2% after the campaign fired off, and that’s a LOT of cola. The engagement part (which I didn’t know about) is that there’s a website where you can read about how your name came to be. You can also order personalized bottles there.
The second is AT&T, which got ahead by using TUMBLR, a popular social media site with millennials. I guess the placement there alone got some attention, but the campaign theme - expressed as a text message - was, “When you know what you want, call me.” Given how texting and calling have become far and away the communication avenues of choice for younger folks, the message struck a chord and made AT&T one of TUMBLR’s most successful advertisers (and probably cost a lot less than FOX or ESPN).
I’ll also briefly mention one other product that worked: Tide’s “Pods” detergent packets. This product recognizes how many younger people use laundromats and how much easier it is to put a couple of these in your pocket or purse and not have to carry a big box. It also apparently appealed to efficiency-conscious young consumers, who might think they were saving by using the exact amount of detergent and not wasting money on pouring in too much powder (despite the fact that a bargain detergent powder would likely be much cheaper).
So if all this is true, maybe selecting Monster to put its face on NASCAR was a great idea, even if it hasn’t shown revolutionary progress, yet. But what else to do?
Oops - guess Monster didn’t work for everybody.
Here’s my final takeaway: millennials and the other younger “Gens” don’t like to be told what to do. That’s why Scion is just a memory. They don’t like to be patronized, which to me is what’s happening with the NFL end-zone celebrations. They like to have choices, look at those choices, and make the choice that’s best for their lifestyle.
NASCAR may not be that choice, but if we can junk the rule-of-the-week, cookie-cutter cars, charters, and incomprehensible point systems, then make what’s left more basic and genuine (and a little easier on EVERYONE’S pocketbook), then maybe some millennials will look at what’s there and decide they like it.
We might like it, too.
Maybe NASCAR should follow the NFL and start loosening up a little. If we can’t bring monkeys back as riders in Monster/Cup stock cars, at least we can let Brad Keselowski tweet.
Frank’s Loose Lug Nuts
Stewart Friesen took advantage of his two-race stint with Joe Gibbs, didn’t he? Now he goes back to his one-hand-tied-behind-the-back truck ride, but I really hope somebody will give this guy a first-class ride, even if he can’t bring along a multi-million dollar sponsorship.
Soon-to-be-83-year-old “Cowboy” Jim Kennedy won a heat race at Clinton County Speedway last weekend. Let’s make some noise in those walkers and wheelchairs!
This photo is nowhere near recent, but it’s a good shot of a real racing hero.
Watkins Glen wasn’t the only place with racing action in New York last weekend. Something around three dozen short tracks also run weekly (probably more), and the total number of spectators doubtless makes for a good crowd of race fans. Sad that NASCAR can’t come to them, too (assuming it can make the effort for them to care that it’s coming), but nobody’s likely to spend millions on a new speedway soon.
However, if we drastically cut the cost of Monster/Cup racing equipment, maybe we could have teams race multiple types of cars, even a traveling show of Arena Racing-style scale cars on portable tracks.
Ricky Dennis’ Arena Racing USA at the Hampton Roads Coliseum.
This option would enable the sport to build its fan base, go to areas where there isn’t a major track, and maybe connect with the racers and fans of the future. Of course, it wouldn’t take as many suits to manage it, and we can’t have layoffs in the upper crust.
One last thought: NASCAR in Michigan didn’t always mean the Irish Hills. Let’s close with a remembrance of those early 1950s races at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit.
This photo from Detroit apparently is from 1953, which means it’s not a NASCAR race, but it’s still stock car racing at the Michigan Fairgrounds. Below are the results from the NASCAR race in 1951.
Please note that there were 15 different makes of car in this race. Wouldn’t that be cool today? Also note that the winner got a new Packard besides his five grand. Other than the grandfather clock at Martinsville, I don’t think anybody does that, anymore.