Millennials Don't Think Like Their Parents. How Do You Design For Them?

Chevy has realized that you can’t sell rebellion to a generation that adores its parents. So how do you convince them that cars are sexy?

During this year’s Super Bowl, Chevy introduced their new Sonic by making it skydive, flip, and bungee jump to the theme of We Are Young. To say they were making a run at the youth market would be an understatement. But what is this new youth market, other than young? You can call us hipsters. You can call us entitled. You can call us whiners or you can call us spoiled. You can call us millennials, too, but what’s that supposed to mean?

Chevy just calls us people ages 16 to 30, and by that count, there are 80 million of us in the U.S. alone right now that represent $1 trillion in buying power. It’s a more liberal interpretation of millennial than I would have anticipated. For those of us on the precipice of counting three decades worth of birthdays, we remember a time before the Internet, while many high schoolers—kids who are just getting drivers permits—never lived without email.

The Sonic Superbowl ad

"As you imagine, that’s a pretty big age range," admits John McFarland. He’s Chevrolet’s Senior Manager of Global Youth Marketing Strategy or "youth guru." I can’t tell how old he is from his energetic voice on the phone, nor do I possess the crassness to ask. But I picture him at a young 40, with one of those rare baby faces that can still pull off a suit. It’s up to McFarland, GM’s cheerier version of Don Draper, to tap into the inherent impulses that make us tick. It’s for this reason that Chevy has spent a lot of time and effort studying millennials, from running focus groups on college campuses to going on test drives with them to handing out Flip cameras for them to document their love (or hate) for whatever brand of car they happen to own.

"The components of being young are pretty timeless. High school and a little bit older, you’re really starting to grow up for the first time, come into your own and develop your identity, to walk that line of establishing individuality and also belong to a group. That doesn’t change," he says. "What you see unique with the millennial generation is really fascinating. Whereas in the past, the need to be an individual on your own may have played a bigger role, they’re navigating that [identity] space very well. They don’t necessarily need to rebel against their parents because they’ve grown so close to them over the years. To Gen X, rebelling was kind of a cornerstone on how they drove their individualization, establishing themselves versus their parents. To millennials, it’s more about the collaborative whole."

The more you consider McFarland’s take on generational identity, the more his arguments begin to make sense. For Gen X, hip hop and grunge were both explicit symbols of rebellion, and heck, even Madonna’s videos were banned by MTV. Gen X’s parents had parallel experiences with The Rolling Stones and even The Beatles. But who is near so polarizing today? If millennials are rebelling, it’s against the man in the form of occupying Wall Street, not against their parents by cranking the new Bieber album. And to Chevy, all these lessons eventually cycle back to the way they design and sell cars.

"Especially when people started to first design products for the youth demographic, they were bold and over the top, designed to stand out, to scream ‘I’m an individual!’" says McFarland. "To the millennial generation, they don’t go very deep—they’re surface level. The Scion was a good example of a brand that did well out of the gate, but they were really talking to Gen X. As the millennial generation becomes a bigger part of the car buying market, I think you’ll see Scion evolve to meet their needs."

Chevy’s current youth strategy has been to release a line of more affordable cars that includes the Spark, Cruze, and Sonic. How would you describe their style? They’re inoffensive. And, to stereotype the word "boring," they look like something our parents might drive. But research (and no doubt, sales figures) have taught Chevy something else. While there are millennials who want nothing but a plain bagel for breakfast every day, about half consider themselves "car enthusiasts" who are looking for something less neutral—a design that celebrates automobiles rather than neutering them.

This counter strategy can be seen in two of Chevy’s latest youth-oriented concepts, the Code 130R and the Tru 140S. Their only starting point was a basic piece of information from their research that they felt did unify millennials: they wanted an affordable ($20,000 or under) sedan with two doors. True sports cars couldn’t do—young people tend to pack their cars full of friends—but other than that, the only other requirements were decent gas mileage and extensive support for gadgets like iPhones.

The two concepts that remain among 30 new youth concepts sketched up by Chevy’s designers, whittled away through the natural selection of collegiate focus testing, are anything but subtle. The Tru, borrowing its lines from Audis and Italian sports cars, and the Code, a mini muscle car that looks straight out of the 1970s, seem to conflict with McFarland’s youth psychology. But he is the first to insist that "there is no such thing as a youth car, a silver bullet to win in the marketplace." Instead, he says it requires "a broad portfolio approach."

The Code 130R

So I spoke to Joe Baker, who designed the Code, about why, for a group that didn’t want to stand out, Chevy was designing flashy cars. And he let me in on a little secret, as I read between the lines far more liberally than he possibly intended: Chevy was designing youth cars, not necessarily to appeal to millennials, but to appeal to millennials’ parents—a complete taste extension of that close familial bond that Gen X lacked.

"I don’t know how you would design something youthfully. To me, that doesn’t resonate at all," Baker says. "Every part of everything I know about young people and the product they want, they actually want to appear older than they are. They are looking for a sophisticated, mature product, because that’s what they’re trying to project to the world. They tend to lean towards, not necessarily conservative brands, but luxury brands."

Chevy’s two concepts are not Scions—they’re not brash cars that imply a late night of clubbing ahead. Instead, they’re cars that imply a certain financial stability—not cars you’d drive to a job interview, but the car your potential boss would have driven to your interview. Stylistic deconstructions aside, just look at them: The Code looks like a $30,000 car, and the Tru a $40,000 car. One may be European and the other pure Americana, but neither looks like a bargain.

Unsurprisingly, Baker says that for every five millennials that came up to him to say that the Code needs to go into production, "three or four older guys come up and say ‘you have to build this thing,’" too. Of course they do. The Code is highly reminiscent of the Camaros and Corvettes that our parents grew up with. And while the Code isn’t my taste (I’m one of the 50%-ish of polled youngsters who prefer the Tru), I do understand why half my peers like it: They probably adore their parents as much as I do, and their parents always liked Camaros.

Maybe it’s the product of being the spoiled younger sibling, or an extension of the unending hipster quest to discover the most authentic authenticity. Maybe it’s just that so few of us have gainful employment, so we’ve remained kids a decade longer than most. But I’ll admit it: My mom was right that McDonald’s sucks just like my dad was right that Bruce Springsteen rocks. Much of my (excellent) taste is really just a result of a tasteful upbringing.

Now, as to whether or not I agree with my parents so much that we’ll be eyeing the same cars on the lot? I guess Chevy will find out soon enough.

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  • m0g

    Sonic looks like a cheap Korean* p.o.s. Meantime here's some concept sketches in a desperate attempt to retain credibility.
    * I say ^cheap^ Korean. Kia and Hyundai are doing amazing things design-wise right now.

  • Simon Kwan

    The Code looks like Chevy's attempt at a poor man's BMW 1 Series. Not a bad thing. Definitely some Camaro Jr. styling details in there as well. As for the Tru, it's more like a cross between the Astra and a Honda CRZ. While neither of these new Chevy concept vehicles are ground breaking, both are far more sophisticated in appearance than most other cars in their price category. Although these seem to be winners in the looks department, the real test will be whether or not GM can deliver a more sophisticated user experience through quality interior design (better material choices and slick feeling control mechanisms) and smart chassis tuning that offers daily driver comfort with weekend autocross agility.

  • Phuong

    I totally agreed with this insight. Its a more positive and better reflection of the so call Gen Y millennial assessment. Rebellion has less appeal than having cars that others would associate with, not saying that individualism doesn't exist but buying a car is more of a shared process. You are more likely to see oldies driving in coupes and muscle cars, while our priority is to find a car with versatility(eg sporty hatchback; doesn't mean gutless) for carrying friends and the occasional IKEA flatpack. Not to say it have to look like a Nannamobile but high horse power and big V8 have less appeal than how efficient it is and if it has audio syncing, i say thats more useful when most the time we spend in traffic. I wouldn't pick any of the coupe concept Chev produced cos its impractical (Hyundai Veloster have better design solution with their asymmetric doors arrangement). Hope Chevy can make more interesting cars than the crappy Daewoo sourced stuff (I'm looking at you Holden).

  • tberno

    Great insight into what is a distinct difference between today's youth and my own. The portfolio approach is very smart. Chevy also had a fleet of highly visible courtesy vehicles on the ground during the recent SXSW festivals in Austin--another interesting approach to finding affinity marketing opportunities.

  • Manfred

    I feel like so much of this is wasted with that dated looking Chevrolet badge on the front of the cars. At the very least they should make the badge silver so that it doesn't so readily evoke a dying restaurant with brass handrails, fixtures, and ferns that hasn't been updated since the early 80s.

  • BongBong

    The skateboard jump was fun. I think today's young kids can't see a future before them because they are mired in the depths of the economic stagnation caused by their parents and grandparents overspending. Most of these kids will buy used cars before they get enough money in their pockets to buy a new car.

  • John Riley Dowdy

    I very quick search of the internets turned up John McFarland's age -- 31.