Part 2/2: How A Humble Ford Pickup Became America’s Best-Selling Vehicle By Channeling Boomer World

Continued from Part 1: reprise …

Although import nameplates captured 55% of the U.S. new vehicle market in 2016, the three best-selling vehicles – by far – were all full-size domestic brand pickups.

In contrast, when Boomers were growing up, American passenger cars – not trucks – oozed size, comfort, power and style. But in the 1970s, after fuel supplies faltered, the green movement took off and regulations proliferated, the emphasis shifted to economy and downsizing. 

But, for many, “big is beautiful” did not disappear along with full size cars – instead, it migrated to truck world.

Trucks, the rebel underground of auto world

By the mid-seventies, that yuppie thing was in full swing as the economy shifted towards white collar/no collar occupations – technology, communications, services, marketing – and away from blue collar work.

Decision-makers in slick corner offices saw the manual trades/rural life imagery of truck-world as a negative for suburban buyers. And, with only around 20% share of Detroit’s light vehicle sales, corporate truck divisions didn’t get enough attention in a market roiled by OPEC and the EPA. Brands were too busy struggling to graft affordability onto big car style, comfort and glamour messaging.

However, in 1976, savvy young visionaries (note to selves: smiley faces, high fives, pats on back) dug deeper and saw things differently. Very differently.

In fact, they went out on a limb, predicting trucks – including 4X4s/SUVs and new little import pickups – were nearing critical mass. Here’s how their tea leaves read:

  • Reality: blue collars / rural life symbolized Americana: hard work, tradition, self-reliance, authenticity.
  • Boomers had been imprinted with the same values: many had blue collar roots, and TV westerns – morality tales from the wide open spaces – were wildly popular as they grew up.
  • Personal use pickups in operation grew from 5.8 million in 1970 to 9.5 million in 1975; about 70% were now bought for recreational and personal use.
  • By 1975, the fastest sales growth was in the suburbs.
  • 4 wheel drives were soaring: 1970 400,000 / 1976 670,000
  • Import pickups were on a roll: 1970 63,000 / 1975 229,000

And one more stat – a doozie: the median age of those little import pickup buyers was only 32, versus 45 for domestic brands, signalling that Boomers were now entering truck world and would likely stay, upgrading as their budgets grew over time.

Trucks were quietly becoming a want as much as a need – after an obligatory nod to “practicality” (huh?) suburban weekend warriors reported high installation rates for comfort and convenience features and many openly relished ruling the road in their full-size trucks; import pickup buyers bragged about sportiness and fun-to-drive versus little econobox alternatives; 4X4 owners reveled in their vehicles’ dashing, go anywhere, rugged-athletic image – while confessing that only 10% of usage was off-highway.

The rebel underground was still embracing those traditional bold, brash and in-your-face motivators.

Morning in America for trucks, twilight for US passenger car brands

Establishment trend-trackers were late to figure out what was going on. Not surprisingly.

In the mid-70s, only 8% of northeast households owned a pickup – barely on the radar for big media analysts, think tank ponderers and Madison Avenue suits.

When the solons did look beyond the Hudson to where pickup penetration of households was highest – the west (23%) and the south (21%) – they relied on stereotypes that weren’t exactly influencer material: la la land faddists, rowdy cowboys and cowgirls yeehahing their way to the barn dance, small minds in small towns and creepy hillbilly hicks with really bad teeth.

Eventually, the official experts came around; after 1981, when the Ford F-series became the best-selling vehicle in the country it was difficult for them not to join the party.

The eighties were aptly named Morning in America. After the economic, social, political and global upheavals of the sixties and seventies, consumers settled back into a more confident mindset and Boomers started nesting. Pretty soon those adorable little ingrates tykes, the Millennials would arrive to co-opt that new home computer and take over the new cable TV service (thanks a bunch Nickelodeon!).

The few station wagons that hadn’t already gone away looked hopelessly out of date in the electronic age, and most affordable passenger cars were too small for all that kiddie gear.

So, parenthood encouraged daring young Boomer moms and dads to consider some version of a truck – reluctantly, maybe a minivan … better yet, a sporty SUV or a rugged pickup that would tell the world they were still active and cool.

Besides, “trucks” had become more family-friendly, offering lots of car-like niceties and conveniences.  Hey, babe, let’s go for it!

By 1990 sales of light trucks of all types were one-third of the market, double their 1970 share. Today, including CUVs – car-based crossover SUVs – they hover at around 50%, depending on gasoline prices.

It took a while for SUVs to dominate the light truck segment. Bronco Billy images persisted in trendy zip codes until around 2000 when prestigious imports finally gave white collar professionals permission to flash a Hochdeutsch smile in polite company – confident that their inner-redneck dental work was safely hidden behind pricey veneers.

As truck cachet and profitability grew, American passenger car brands embarked on a long journey into twilight. After a series of missteps, they no longer symbolized suburbanite upward mobility, success, style and flair.

Instead, imagery tilted to no-frills sales rep models, rental cars, taxis, knee-jerk buy-American types and old-timers cruising supermarket parking lots looking for a handicapped space big enough for their Detroit branded land yacht holdout.

Even the elite Cadillac marque would come to rely on its burly Escalade SUVs to boost the bottom line.

Full-sized American trucks – channeling Boomer world 

The official rationale is “poor product quality”, but for many import buyers the real reasons for rejecting domestic passenger car brands comes down to image: they just aren’t cool.  And their buyers aren’t cool either.

The situation is very different for full-size pickups and SUVs: same brands, but a pecking order turned upside down.

Here, the imports have barely made a dent: 78% of full-size pickups and a whopping 92% of full-size SUVs are domestics.

And Cadillac – alhough overshadowed in the car segment by BMW, Mercedes and Lexus – leads the large luxury SUV category, with a 31% share.

In the big dog world of full-size trucks and SUVs, presence, power and style still matter.

And not just any style: authentic American style. Work hard, play hard, brawny but not a bully, casual but confident in any situation.

Think John Wayne. In a suit. Or boots and jeans. Even a tux. The Duke gets to wear whatever the heck he wants. And if he hasn’t shaved, it’s not a statement, it’s because he hasn’t showered either. Deal with it.

Obviously, the big is beautiful domestic brand values – Americana values – with which the Boomers were imprinted while growing up didn’t entirely disappear. That’s the thing about imprinting. It is always there, embedded, waiting for those who know where to look and how to resonate.

If you think the idea of a full-size pickup truck grabbing top sales honors year after year is disruptive, consider this: the median age of buyers is on the high side of 50, well outside adland’s vaunted 18-49 demo.

Makes sense. With average transaction prices in the mid-$40,000 range – $10,000 above the all-vehicle mean – hefty disposable assets plus 1960s/70s imprinting explain why older Gen Xers and Boomers are the sweet spot for these trucks.

Not just for trucks – for any brand with the disruptive curiosity to discover its own unique, embedded DNA. It’s out there somewhere, hidden away in Boomer world – our territory … we can help you find it.

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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