Boomers and Minivans: Listerine On Wheels Or Cupcakes?

Posted by

Boomers must have loved minivans … well, comme ci, comme ςa 

There’s a popular misconception that Boomers and older Gen Xers must have loved minivans. Just look at the numbers: over 20 million were sold between 1985 and 2005.

Plymouth Voyager 1984When Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan arrived in 1983, except for the VW van – sales of which were only 14,700 that year – there was no such category as “minivan.”

Thanks to their brilliant design brief, the Chrysler twins were an instant hit; they sold 210,000 units in their launch year, more than doubling to 474,000 by 1987.

US Minivan sales 1983-2015Competitors soon jumped in; by 1991 U.S. consumers could choose from 21 different models, and sales had pushed past one million units.

The peak year was 2000 (1.37 million), and sales still topped 1.1 million in 2005 before a steep drop off to late-80s levels today.

Conventional wisdom claims that mommy-mobile imagery has finally reduced the minivan to people who – ugh! – actually like that sort of thing. The truth is that a solid block of buyers don’t like minivans all that much.

Even in their heyday, there was major resistance. Many buyers were drawn – kicking and screaming – by their logical left brains to a utilitarian purchase that gave their emotional right brains the shivers.

Freud would have understood. Consider the ingrained van imagery that prowled through prospects’ early1980s nightmares …

Vans were for – choose your poison: blue-collar work; neo-rednecks à la Ford Club Wagon; hippies and party animals in gaudy rolling bachelor pads that sent fathers reaching for their shotguns when the boogie-wagon arrived to pick up Cindi, Debbi or Traci for a date.

1970s Vans

Minivan culture: from cupcakes to Listerine on wheels

Mask_comedyOn the upside, minivan advantages solved practical problems

  • Visibility/control: sit higher than in a car – the command position
  • Car-like handling and fuel efficiency vs. classic station wagons
  • Big side door: easy to load children and attach their car-seats
  • Removable rear seats: accommodate occasional bulky items
  • Hatchback and low load height: great for all kinds of family “stuff”
  • Pass-through: mom could move front to back to tend to kids

Mask_tragedyBesides negative “van” imagery, there were other emotional barriers

  • Detroit: many ’80s yuppies previously owned trendy imports
  • Brand: after a major financial crisis, Chrysler cachet was at low ebb
  • Reliability: usual new model jitters overlaid on Chrysler survivability
  • I’m a boring parent” signal: no more harmless stoplight flirtations
  • Hatchback: strong associations with cheap econo-boxes of the era
  • Boxy, dated lines in a world that was rapidly going aerodynamic.

So minivan buyer attitudes spanned a continuum running from smiley cupcakes to Listerine on wheels. Depending on our kids’ behavior on any given day, we skittered back and forth between the two.

Moms and dads Cabbage Patch Kids spreadin the cupcake zone, not only embraced their fate as parents but actually reveled in it.

For them, the minivan symbolized family-first – old-fashioned and corny, perhaps, but warm and fuzzy. McDonald’s Happy Meals and cuddles. S’mores and hot chocolate.

What could be nicer?

ListerineThe Listerine mouthwash slogan The taste you hate twice a day could have been written for our reluctant minivan buyer alter egos: we need it but, yuk, we hate the way it tastes!

When SUVs added third row seating, after 2000 many “Listerine” buyers who could afford to switch began to do so – gratefully. Key word: afford.

To get comparable interior volume in an SUV meant, and still means in 2016, a major price jump. Minivan world remains a schizophrenic place where many still drive the taste they hate twice a day.

GM’s “Dustbusters” … the naivety of accepting easy answers

As we have written many times, we’re experts at Boomer-speak – a language seemingly easy to understand but, in reality, complex and steeped in secret code. Brands mistake, misunderstand and mangle it all the time.

Misinterpreting Boomer-speak is nothing new.

GM did so big-time when they decided to enter the minivan segment. After their planners listened to Chrysler owner complaints – boxy, van-ish, uncool – they smiled. Such an easy language. Piece of cake, dude, no problemo.

DustbustersThe solution: Chevy Lumina APV, Pontiac Trans Sport and Oldsmobile Silhouette. Nifty, evocative names and swoopy, space age styling. Jokers would come to call them “Dustbuster” minivans, after the famous compact vacuum cleaner.

Focusing on consumer feelings was misleading. Reluctant buyers still chose Chrysler minivans in spite of their emotions because, after thinking, they made a practical decision.

You see, that long-nosed, swoopy space-age styling dictated vans that were longer than the extended Grand Caravan/Voyager but – a doozy – with only the same interior space as the compact Caravan version.

Minivan dimensions

Disclosure: in 1990, your humble scribe strategized for Chrysler and watched Caravan/Voyager owners ooh and aah over GM’s cool styling before sobbing over the specs. We advised the client to stick with their “boxy” format. In this category, utility trumps styling. Si hay un problema.

The Dustbuster minivans were gone in six years. The more functional vacuum cleaner is still around.

Boomer-speak 2016: the naivety of accepting easy answers

Research routinely confirms the obvious family-stage persona of the category; data from J. D. Power and TrueCar suggests half or more buyers are aged 30-50.

Most analysts jump to the easy answer: Gen X is the sweet spot. Well, yes, if we just focus on first time buyers. But the bigger picture is that Boomers also represent a huge segment.

Keep calm and drive a minivan after 50In fact, surveys show the median minivan buyer age is 50: J.D. Power published the following data for the market leaders in 2009.

  • Total Midsize Van Segment: 50 years
  • Dodge Grand Caravan: 52 years
  • Chrysler Town & Country: 51 years
  • Toyota Sienna: 48 years
  • Honda Odyssey: 43 years

Any way you slice it, the 50+ buyer – Gen X and Boomer parents plus proud grandparents – represents close to half the market.

Toyota SiennaBut you’d never know that from the 18-34 demo fixation in most minivan advertising, brochures and websites.

You’ll see lots of little kids, sure, and – huh? – cool millennial chicks (you go girl, look how many H&M bags you can stack in that cargo area). OK, we get it, making minivans cool for future moms is important, but how about some gray hairs too?

Cupcake bright ideaAfter all, in a reduced and more competitive market, doesn’t it make sense for brands to target the most committed customers in the category – parents of husky teenagers and folks of the grandparent persuasion? We don’t need to be sold on cupcakes minivans … but we do need to know why YOUR cupcake minivan beats THEIR cupcake minivan.

One challenge – as GM discovered – is that authentic Boomer-speak is a hidden language. The few adland attempts to engage consumers over fifty usually get the accents, idioms and inflexions wrong.

The no problemo syndrome – the naivety of dealing in easy answers – is alive and well.

Too bad. Americans over fifty represent the third largest economy in the world and buy half of all new vehicles sold in the US – including well over 200,000 minivans in 2016.

When the idea of actively targeting the 50+ space goes viral, marketers will be scrambling for a crash course in Boomer-speak. Fortunately, we offer translation services … and we’ll provide the cupcakes. Any flavor you want.

Opportunity_Cupcake heaven

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.

Sign up for the newsletter and contact us for brand re-generation in the 50+ space.