How Boomers and Gen X Invented The SUV — And Can’t Let Go

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SUVs are back in style: thank – or blame – the Boomers and Gen X

To the surprise of some auto industry analyst, SUVs and crossover CUVs – SUV-lite cuties built on car platforms – staged a resurgence in 2014.

Bloomberg offers a terrific infographic that shows it’s not just SUVs on a roll, but light trucks in general, including CUVs, pickups and vans.

Light duty vehicles_cars_trucks 2014_2013Quoting industry figures for 2014 versus 2013, they report that car sales grew by an anemic 1.8% but that light trucks were up by a whopping 10%.

The data also shows, while light truck sales increased in all segments, the biggest and the swankiest SUVs jumped by the widest margins of all; 12.4% and 14.2% respectively.

But CUVs are the new auto industry darlings. At close to four million units in 2014, they have become the 21st century station wagon. Are woodgrain and Vista Cruiser skylights next? Bring it on.

The usual suspectsNaturally, the usual suspects are behind the light truck trend: Boomers. Study after study shows that over half of U.S. new vehicles are bought by Americans aged 50-plus; over two-thirds including Gen Xers 45-49.

But with gas prices in the 1970 zone (adjusted for inflation), it’s to be expected that older Americans would revert to type.

Boomers and SUVs: imprinting is not just for baby geese

Before blaming the Boomers for the SUV revival, remember it’s not our fault: we were imprinted decades ago by the call of wild, where only the bold dare go: mountains, deserts, Grateful Dead concerts.

Konrad LorenzThe breakthrough theory of imprinting was the brainchild of behaviorist Dr. Konrad Lorenz. He discovered that at critical points in the development of young birds, lifelong perceptions can be embedded, or imprinted.

Working with baby geese, he replaced their mother at just the right moment, imprinting them on himself as “mom.”

Apparently, when it comes to vehicles, humans are not far behind geese in terms of smarts.

About the time teenagers reach driving age, they suddenly acquire a mental map of which vehicles are cool and which are not. The objects of desire may be unattainable, but the imprinted lure remains powerful – core values are long-lived.

Which is how the seeds of today’s busy SUV marketplace were planted in the 1970s.

Although still a niche market, recreational off-roading grew steadily through the 1960s as Ford and Chevrolet introduced new models to compete with Jeep for outdoorsy, family fun business. But outback America was also taking on an edgy-cool glamour; rugged cowboys and cowgirls still rode free and Easy Rider rebels made their own roads.

Powerful imprinting awaited susceptible young minds. Boomer crazies took the bait.

Off-roading 1970sMost couldn’t afford new off-road vehicles, but we sure jumped on used ones – Jeeps, El Caminos, Land Cruisers, Bronco IIs, hacked 4X4 pickups and dune buggies reworked from cut-down Volkswagens.

These rowdy, quirky-looking off-road machines promised trendy young drivers three things they craved. Escape. Peer admiration. Parental disapproval.

Jeep 1984Inevitably, as young parents in the 1980s, even trailblazers had to accept grown-up responsibility. But still imprinted by cool trucks, they kept their active, independent spirits alive by becoming early adopters of the first mid-size modern SUVs.

Buyers knew that even when equipped with a full range of car-like amenities, including – the final surrender – four doors, SUVs still signaled, dude, we rock.

By the 1990s, Gen Xers and Boomer late majority adopters had pushed the SUV market past critical mass. The category morphed from the authentic domain of domestic nameplates to an international arena in which styling and brand image rule.

Even the last bastion of good ol’ boy masculinity – the trusty pickup – succumbed in the end, acquiring extra doors, more seats and levels of comfort and amenities more suited to domesticated family life than an off-road smack down at the OK Corral.

Finally, in 1999, on the brink of the new century, the truck share of light vehicle sales crossed the 50% barrier. Game over.

Disruptive Millennials reject Adland goose kibble and re-evaluate Boomers

Boomers and their older siblings born 1940-1945 – the Boomer-Plus Generation™ – revolutionized light vehicle sales, helping the truck share to triple, from 18% to 54%, between 1970 and 2014. And, along the way, we gladly accepted new brands and new ideas from half a dozen countries.

Yet old guard Madison Avenue claims Americans suddenly stop adapting after age 50 and no longer merit targeting or depiction in mainstream auto advertising. How weird is that?

Thankfully, some disruptive ad-land Millennials are beginning to reject their mentors’ goose kibble and resist establishment imprinting. Instead, they are opening up to the huge potential of the 93 million Boomer-Plus consumers who control over 70% of U.S. household net worth.

We know how it is to rebel: help is just a click away.

Opportunity Geese

Boomer - neXt SM logo_MMOriginally published as a Boomer-Plus Consulting Group post; in September, 2017, we up-branded as Boomer / neXt to welcome the 4 million Gen Xers who join the Boomers in the 50+ space each year.

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