4 Tips From Ford on Marketing to Millennials

Last Updated Jun 22, 2011 11:57 AM EDT

I just returned from the Youth Mega Mashup, sponsored by YPulse and The Institute for International Research (IIR), where I heard some excellent speakers talk about marketing to teens and young adults. Among them was Amy Marentic, a Ford Motor Co. executive who is responsible for future model planning and strategy for North American cars and crossovers. Part of Marentic's job involves getting Millennial buyers jazzed up about Ford. That's not easy.

"Millennials do not buy vehicles," she noted. Only about 10% of new car sales come from that generation, whose members are also getting their licenses much later than Baby Boomers did. So, she posed, "are cars going to become irrelevant to U.S. youth?" Maybe. But kids have a way of growing up into car-buying adults, so Ford knows that it can't afford to ignore a segment of the market that may currently be very small, but that will ultimately be extremely influential. So how does a company that sells a product that kids don't necessarily want, and a brand that many of them think of as dull, get its message across? "We're turning a 108 year old brand over to consumers," says Marentic. "I'm very serious about that." Here's what she means:

  • Appeal to Millennial's love of technology. Get on a train or a bus, and you can still be wired. But the minute you get behind the wheel, you're expected to power everything off. Marentic says that separation from technology contributes to Millennial's lack of enthusiasm for driving. Ford's response was MyFord Touch, a sophisticated on board technology system introduced in the Ford Edge. "They are always on and they want their experience in the car to be always on," says Marentic. "You can't cut off their world when they get in their vehicle." So MyFord Touch syncs with your phone, reads your text messages to you, adjusts the temperature in the car, and can tell you where to have dinner, all while you keep your hands on the wheel. "It understands 10,000 voice commands," she says. To demo it, Millennial-style, Ford produced a clever video with rock star Bret Michaels. Marentic says the campaign resulted in a 33% increase in Ford Edge purchases among Gen Xers and Millennials.
  • Get Millennials talking to one another about your product. When Ford was getting ready to launch the Fiesta in the U.S., the company gave prototypes of the car to 100 young, web-savvy "Fiesta Agents." "We gave them a Fiesta for six months, and gave them gas and insurance, and they had to do monthly missions for us and then put the results online," says Marentic. "If I tell them how great the new Ford Fiesta is, they won't notice, but when their friends and family tell them, they'll pay attention." One mission, for instance, required the agents to talk about the car's passive entry system, which inspired one agent to create the now-popular "Zombie video," which has over 400,000 views on YouTube. In total, the campaign resulted in 641,585 consumer engagements, 764,415 views of Flickr, and over six million video views. But most importantly, says Marentic, when the car launched, there was 56% name plate familiarly, which she says is "unheard of." 20 percent of all Fiesta sales are now to Millennials.
  • Connect your brand to Millennials on their own turf. For Ford, that meant finding a way to tap into this generation's passion for community service. The result: a campaign that involved partnering with schools nationwide to offer incentives for kids and families to test-drive a Ford. Schools and dealers organized the events where, for instance, every test drive earned $20 for the school, up to $6,000 per school. "Ford donated $5 million to schools," says Marentic. There were 1500 events in 49 states, resulting in 255,000 test drives.
  • Be edgy and entertaining. Marentic says that the Ford Focus had a serious image problem: "there was a lot of negativity, especially with youth," she notes. "It was like a fridge - you have it, it works, and that's about it." So Ford decided to hire a new "spokesperson" named Doug - a cheeky, irreverent, and somewhat lecherous orange sock puppet who can be counted upon to behave badly. For instance, when a Ford marketing exec tells Doug about the double French stitching on the seats in the Focus, he replies, "how many times have I sat in single-French-stitched seats and said, 'I might as well be at the town dump sitting on garbage cans'?" Doug lives solely on social media - you'll find him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but never on traditional media.
So is it working? "Our market share with Millennials has increased significantly," says Marentic. "We're now the top selling brand to all Millennials." The lesson, she says is "don't be afraid to turn your brand over to others." That's relevant advice for all marketers, but especially to those who are trying to reach younger consumers.

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