Echo Booming – Segment Busters

If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who ya gonna call?

Ghostbusters is so ‘80s.  Today Segment Busters are all the rage.  Take the Ectomobile’d Chevrolet HHR (Heritage High Roof) for instance.  Is it a wagon?  A mini-minivan?  A compact SUV?  All we know is that segment busters are popping up in neighborhoods all across America.

Nissan Cubes, Nissan Jukes, Scion xBs, Kia Souls, Pontiac Vibes, Honda Crosstours, Mazda5s, Toyota FJ Cruisers—even luxury makes are getting into it.  Acura evidently gave its ZDX the stealth bomber treatment to cloak it from categorization.  Whatever happened to good ol’ sedans and SUVs, and who buys these things?

Manufacturers claim to target this non-segment segment at Echo Boomers.  Since my peers’ supposedly think outside the box, automakers hope we think inside the Cube.

I hypothesize that Generation Y isn’t so unique in its obsession with uniqueness.  As with every generation, some Millenials seek escape from their parents.  Is this portion large enough to sustain the oncoming onslaught of segment busters?

First, rewind that videocassette back to MY2000.  Inventor of the now-ubiquitous minivan, Chrysler was the first to bust segments, too, with its PT Cruiser.  Unique styling, enough room for four Sumo wrestlers and their rice, and a youth-friendly price bestowed “different” unto the masses.  The vast majority of Echo Boomers, though, find Chrysler PT Cruisers revolting.  But how can a car remain unchanged for a decade in a segment which prides itself on being different?  The PT’s early popularity now makes it conformist, “a parent’s car” as opposed to “our car.”

Many brands have since entered the segment-buster game and still more threaten to play.  Are there enough rebel buyers or are automakers getting overly trigger-happy?  Eighteen Echo Boomers selflessly provided some representative data.

Asked to quantify automotive tastes as a manifestation of the need to escape from parents:

  • 1/3 somewhat want to express that they’re different from their parents
  • 1/2 somewhat approve of their parents’ car choices
  • 0 lie to either extreme
  • 1/6 are completely indifferent in their automotive preferences

Only one-third espouse the general feeling described by respondent: “I want to make sure that I’m driving a car that I love, not what they love.”  The other two-thirds either aspire to the “classy [expletive] cars” their “yuppie” parents drive, or were satisfied with anything on four wheels.

Given the hypothetical purchasing choice:

  • 2/3 prefer traditional sedans and SUVs (Mazda3, Toyota Camry, Honda Pilot, etc.)
  • 1/3 prefer segment busters (Scion xB, Mazda5, Toyota XJ Cruiser, etc.)

Some respondents favor the attention-free practicality of traditional cars, and several of whom express distaste towards “fugly” segment busters.  The 1/3 segment buster crowd is, interestingly, fairly correlated to the 1/3 “rebel[s] without a cause” in the survey above.

Clearly there’s a group of Echo Boomers which seeks escape from parent-conferred convention through category-defying cars.  However, this market is not the majority of the Millenial demographic and will likely be oversaturated in the next few years.  Although some cite high average buyer ages as evidence that segment busters reach other demographics, we’ve already exposed in a previous Echo Booming post that this phenomenon is likely due to Echo Boomers’ cars being titled under their parents’ names.

Manufacturers would be wise to exercise caution in considering such additions to their product strategies.  A new segment buster’s recipe for success is simple to define but difficult to execute: cheap, practical, and ACAP—as crazy as possible—to stand out from the growing competition.

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