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Youth Sells, But Who’s Buying?
Toyota has invested millions advertising its new Scion directly—and aggressively—to hip tech-savvy subcultures; the question is, do the subcultures care?

By Katharine Jones

Ian Jones, a 24-year-old from Brunswick, likes cars. More specifically, he likes customizing cars. He’s got stacks of magazines on the subject and has been known to drop a few grand on performance and body modifications. Until about a year ago, he drove a 1998 Mazda 626 on which he added a custom-made body kit, street suspension and a custom interior. He also tweaked the engine.

Jason DeCarmine is another car enthusiast. While living in the Tampa Bay area, he worked for an auto-body shop, stylizing and modifying cars, and in his spare time, personally customized his own Chevy Blazer and Ford Ranger.

Like many car hobbyists, Jones and DeCarmine both have taken notice of the Scion, a new line of cars produced by the Toyota Motor Company that is currently being marketed as a sleek, affordable and, most importantly, customizable car. The car offers hundreds of options for owners to customize their rides, ranging from taillight garnishing and body kits to subwoofers and MP3-player-compatible stereos. It seems like a sweet deal, but neither of these two young men would consider buying one. “I’d feel dumb just sitting in one,” says DeCarmine.

When the Scion (which, as one Chicago Daily Herald editor joked, rhymes with “high on”) was unleashed in June 2003, the Toyota Motor Company began an aggressive advertising campaign employing ATTIK, a London-based advertising company whose edgy campaigns have been used to sell products for Adidas, Virgin Mobile and MTV. The company’s Web site claims that it is “known for its progressive execution in design and its branding expertise.” Local dealerships say that the Scion, with its modest price (depending on the model, the car runs between $12,480 and $15,950) and its sleek, modern look, is popular with buyers of all ages. But after one look at the Scion’s Web site, with its fancy flash animation, or a quick flip through the 80-plus page catalogue, which could easily be confused for an artsy, underground fanzine with its trendy street slang, it is plain to see that the marketing of the Scion is aimed directly at young drivers hoping to buy into the hip auto- customizing scene. The brand’s mission is to “satisfy a trend setting youthful buyer through distinctive products and innovative, consumer-driven process.”

This “consumer-driven process” is most clear on the Scion’s Web site, where visitors not only can build their own tricked-out, customized wheels, but also can shop for mix CDs and Scion gear, which includes the same shirts, sunglasses, beanies and pullovers you might find at Urban Outfitters. The site also links to something called Scion World, an online forum where people can talk about how much they like their Scions and how they plan to customize them. Also offered on the Web site are contests for graphic artists and hiphop musicians. It’s an obvious marketing agenda, one which must have required a lot of money and research to develop—all to appeal to a group of people who, according to Jones, “don’t give a fuck about buying a Scion.”

Andrew Lynch is a brand planner for Arnold World Wide, an advertising agency that since 1995, has been the advertising giant behind the music-video-like Volkswagen advertisements (remember Trio’s “Da Da Da”?). As was the case with the Scion, marketers for the car company tried to develop credibility among young, trend- following buyers. Brand planners collect information from all forms of market research, including consumer-based focus groups, interviews with cultural experts, and consumer research.

“It makes the campaign cohesive, and not just a few random advertisements,” says Lynch. “If you have a strategy as a template, that strategy should ideally hold all the executions in a campaign.”

A complicated process, brand planning focuses not on developing a brand for a target demographic, (which generally refers to age, education and income brackets), but rather on a certain mindset, which in the business is referred to as a “psychograph.” Psychographic indicators focus on personality types and lifestyles. Some advertisers feel that by focusing on a psychograph instead of a demographic, they are able to reach a wider audience and can further develop the brand’s personality.

“When Arnold World Wide took over Volkswagen’s advertising in 1995, [Volkswagen] already had its own personality,” says Lynch. “The cars themselves attracted a certain kind of person. We did research with people who loved their Volkswagens and found that they were a little quirky, a little left of center. They kind of didn’t mind that their car wasn’t perfect because it had a certain vibe and feel. Generally, they were people who liked to drive with the windows down, and with the music playing loud. We put that all together. . . . We [at Arnold] thought that we understood the Volkswagen mindset.”

But with very little in common style-wise with its parent company, Toyota, and no history to build from, Scion brand planners must have looked elsewhere—in this case, the culture of auto-customizing enthusiasts who were already part of an underground movement, one that has been becoming more mainstream thanks in part to the 2001 hit The Fast and the Furious, which was less a movie about a undercover cop and more a showcase of tricked-out wheels, and shows like MTV’s Pimp My Ride, on which owners of old, junky cars get them revamped with lots of customized bling-bling.

The customizing options of the Scion mimic the after-market modifications people typically make to other Japanese import cars, like the Honda Civic and the Acura RSX, which for years have been embraced by the urban auto-customization culture as palettes for creativity. Hoping that young consumers would want to buy into a ready-made imitation of this culture, Toyota entered the market with the Scion. And though the price tag of the car itself is modest, the company stands to make a tidy profit on each customizable option: Ordering custom rear taillights from Scion, for example, would set you back an extra $275; ordered from eBay, they’d cost about half as much.

Anyway, for automotive-customization enthusiasts, their craft is a matter of pride. It is a long, personal process of body and suspension modifications, and interior and exterior styling begins with a stock-model car. Ordering a customized Scion skips over this essential process altogether.

“They’re making money off something we created,” says DeCarmine. “and I don’t think that picking a few options out of a catalogue is really customizing. . . . They’re just doing that to make profit.”

And it’s not just customizing purists who are passing on the Scion. Adam Branson wouldn’t buy one either. Earlier this year, Branson, a 20-year-old photography student living in Manhattan, was paid 10 bucks an hour by Cunning, an advertising partner of ATTIK, to walk around Time Square with a fake tattoo of the word “Scion” on his forehead and tout the coolness of the car to passersby. But the gig wasn’t enough to convince him to part with $15K.

“They [Cunning] told us to talk about the Scion like it was the perfect car for college students because it’s cheap and cool. I mean, if I had the money I might consider buying one, but I’m just worried about this year’s tuition.”

Whether or not Scion will ever be able to attract its original target consumer is anyone’s guess. People like Jones believe that the Toyota Motor Company is completely misdirected, and have “intentionally used inexpensive products like graffiti and mix tapes to create a ‘Parents just don’t understand’ vibe.”

The Scion is, however, selling to young professional couples, soccer moms and older drivers too, like David Kerschner, a 50-year-old chiropractor from East Greenbush who doesn’t consider himself young, urban, or hip. He bought his xA Scion last month at Northway Toyota after researching cars on the Internet. The car just happened to fit his needs for a fuel-efficient, economically priced car. The Scion also looked nice to him and handled well on the road. But the most important factor in Kerschner’s decision to purchase his xA was the upfront pricing and no-hassle sales approach he received at the dealership.

“I like the Scion for the way that it’s packaged,” said Kerschner. “It comes with everything you need. The only other fees are for customization, which I didn’t bother to do. I like driving it. . . . It’s my main car now. I take it to work, to the grocery store and around town. I save my old SUV for bad weather.”

When asked whether or not he uses the space in the trunk to cart around DJ equipment—a feature the Scion brochure proudly touts—Kerschner just laughs and says, “No, but there’s room enough for my golf clubs.”

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