- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

DEARBORN, Mich. — Take Your Sons and Daughters to Work day in late April turned into put your teens to work day at Ford Motor Co.

Ford, like Detroit’s other automakers and companies across the U.S., offered a host of activities for the children of its employers. Among them at its Product Development Center, which includes automotive design, was a consumer clinic for teens.

Ford figured it had dozens of future car buyers in the all-important youth market under its roof, why not grill them about what they like and don’t like in cars.

These youngsters are part of the largest population demographic ever in the U.S. They fall into categories Ford calls Millennials, born between 1979 and 1994, and Gen Next, born since 1995. Combined, these two categories currently total nearly 108 million youngsters, or about 38 percent of the total population. That’s about double the current ranks of the baby boomers, previously the largest, most significant demographic in the U.S. Ford estimates the numbers and influence of the group will only grow. By 2010, there will be nearly 130 million of them, making up 43 percent of the population. And by 2015, when they really come into their peak buying years, there will be nearly 154 million of them, nearly one of every two in the total population.

In fact, so important is this demographic that every major auto manufacturer is scrambling to figure out what these youngsters want in the future — and, it appears, no one has quite figured out the answer. But Ford gave it a shot.

The consumer clinic for the teens was set up just like any consumer clinic that Ford holds. In this case, the boys and girls were split into separate groups. I trailed the girls to the first part where they were shown photos of a series of items — shoes, watches and sunglasses — to get a sense of their taste and what was cool, as well as how they associated the styles of certain products with a specific market segment. For instance, the girls could immediately identify the shoe that was the favorite of young women in Miami — and they were dead right. But they didn’t designate the same shoe as their favorite, suggesting they recognize regional preferences for style.

Ford researchers also wanted a feel for how these youngsters expressed themselves. If they were given $200 for a new outfit, where would they shop, what would they buy and how would they describe the new outfit to a girlfriend? (Answer: “sweet” was the favorite term.)

The youngsters then had to build their own vehicle within a budget. They were given a list of options and could select those that totaled $2,500. Not surprisingly sound systems and satellite radio topped the list, but perhaps because they are children of auto company parents, they added safety items, such as anti-lock brakes. When the budget dropped to $1,300, however, safety went out the window in favor of sound systems.

I then wandered to the color and trim center where the boys, including my own car-crazed 13-year-old, were picking their favorite car colors from a wall covered with dozens of samples and preferred styles of trim, from matte and shiny finishes to faux wood grain and carbon fiber. The No. 1 pick of this group by a landslide was a rich gray/silver with a distinctive metallic finish.

Other picks included sports car reds and deep black. Forget orange, that’s yesterday’s youth market. And no way on light colors, especially pastels. Said one boy: “That’s a color my mother would pick.”

Earlier in the day, another group of youngsters displayed their sketches of cars. Winners got to tool around in a Ford GT driven by Hau Thai-Tang, chief engineer of the Mustang and now head of Ford SVT. Convertibles and suicide doors (rear-hinged back doors) were a common theme. There was a convertible version of a retro-looking Continental and droptop GT, with “the safety of a five-star minivan,” as the artist described it. There were the flights of fancy — the 11-year-old’s car that drives on the highway, swims through water or flies through the air with a push of a button.

Two siblings not only sketched the car, but laid out a marketing plan for their creations (can you guess that Dad is in Ford marketing?) The 11-year-old’s sketch was named after herself — hey it worked for Henry Ford, among many others. It was for a powerful, five-seat convertible. She laid out a pricing strategy, positioned it among its competitors and described its target audience as a car “for the family with kids who want to be hip.”

Her 6-year-old brother’s Mellow Yellow sports car had more rudimentary strategy but a to-the-point target market: “for cool guys with lots of girlfriends.” (I thought that was a Porsche!) I don’t know how much Ford learned from these youngsters, but it was fun and educational for me.

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