Features  You are what you drive

Jane Gatensby examines Toyota's attempt to rebrand its cars and rebrand your life

It’s early January, and I’m at the Montreal Auto Show at the Palais des congrès. Like all trade shows, it’s a visually overstimulating experience. All three of the exhibition levels are packed with cars and vendors, noise and salespeople. Families, couples and friends wander through the displays, ogling Rolls-Royces and souped-up Ferraris. Everyone is hustling something, be it the newest Audi, an insurance plan, or a bottle of leather cleaner. I push through the throngs, a little overwhelmed by the labyrinth of showrooms. It’s clear that fortunes have been spent here to promote this behemoth of an industry, which supports 9 million jobs worldwide and hundreds of thousands in Canada where automotive manufacturing accounts for over two per cent of our total industrial GDP.

Finally, I reach my destination: a small but distinctive display tucked in a corner of the huge Toyota showroom. It’s here that I find Scion, one of the most fascinating examples of how the automobile industry is fighting to retain its grip on the way we move.

Scion is a marquee of Toyota, but nothing at the booth gives that away. The display looks more like a nightclub than anything else. The brand’s three models – the xD, tC, and xB – sit on plush black carpet, displayed in jewel tones that pop against the booth’s smooth, jet-black walls. Nondescript techno blares from overhead speakers. Scion’s circular “S” symbol is omnipresent, alongside slogans like “Creative- Authentic- Individualistic” and “Different by Design”.

The booth’s presenters, all in their early twenties, have discarded the standard car show uniform of company polos and black trousers in favour of hoodies and jeans. One presenter, Maude, starts explaining Scion’s appeal to me: “The models are for sure, like, a younger image. It’s a more, like, powerful car.” Around us, show-goers are climbing inside cars, examining specs and playing the “augmented reality” Scion videogame set up in a corner. I ask Maude what about Scion gives the car this younger image, and why I’ve been seeing the logo so often around town lately. “I just think that’s because it’s so new. Young people are more attracted to it,” she says. “Everywhere young people are right now, they’re trying to be.”

Scion’s story begins about ten years ago. In the early 2000s, Toyota had a problem. The average age of their drivers was 46 – one of the highest in the industry. The term “Japanese Buick” was getting thrown around, and although Toyota had just launched a series of models meant to attract younger buyers, almost all were flops. (Do you by chance recall the Toyota Spyder? Or the Celica?) The brand that meant safety and reliability to older buyers was seen as dowdy by the new generation, who didn’t want to be driving their parents’ cars.

Toyota needed a new approach. They found it in the Blue Ocean Strategy, a corporate playbook born of the Harvard Business Review, which “challenges companies to break out of the red ocean of bloody competition by creating uncontested market space that makes the competition irrelevant.” In other words, Toyota was no longer going to compete with Hyundai or Mazda, because they would be selling a completely different product. They would be selling cool.

Thus, Project Exodus began. The objective: to create a new brand name that would appeal to the Gen-Y demographic (anyone born between 1975 and 2000). Exodus launched Scion, a line of models with distinctive designs that drew from a racing aesthetic, made available in the U.S. in 2003. To bring in the youth market, Scion began inserting itself wherever 18-to-30-year-olds hung out by sponsoring concerts, art installations, independent films, trendy restaurants and the like.

Scion taps into the psyche (or, at least, the supposed psyche) of our generation and acts accordingly. A big theme in their campaign is originality and individualism. “The younger generation express themselves through music, art, style and lifestyle choices,” says scionnation.ca “Every Scion is just that – a steel canvas for expression, using accessories to create a vehicle that is as unique as the person driving it.” Scion offers hundreds of customization options, like stereo upgrades, spoilers, and lowering springs. Younger car buyers are more likely than older ones to be “tuners” – drivers that modify the appearance of their car by paying thousands of dollars for head-to-toe customization.

Another way that Scion distinguishes itself is with its “pure price” policy: no haggling, because “buying your car should be as easy as buying anything else.” Apparently, young people only buy things with barcodes.

The idea is that by offering customization, sponsoring events and having a pure-price policy, Scion demonstrates that it “gets” us. In adding these elements to fast, design-forward and powerful cars – priced within reach of first-time buyers – Scion became Toyota’s newest success with sales peaking at 170,000 units sold in 2006.

It avoided the loud advertising techniques used by other car manufacturers, saved money by avoiding too many TV ads and by piggybacking showroom space from existing Toyota dealerships. The Scion dynasty grew and began looking to expand to new markets. In late September of last year, the shiny new 2011 models made their debut in Canadian Toyota dealerships for the first time.

Since its arrival, the company has staged an all-out marketing blitzkrieg on Montreal, and, it seems, my life. After buying my ticket before a concert last October, I was given a Scion wristband from a man at a Scion tent, and walked past a display of two parked Scions on the way to the door. There are Scion ads on the back of the number 24 bus going down Sherbrooke as I walk to class, suggesting that I would rather be riding in a Scion than on the STM. My favourite music magazine has a double-page Scion spread in every issue. That new producer I love? Scion just released his mix tape. Scion sponsors Piknic Electronique and Igloofest, as well as the Cheaper Show – a major exhibition for emerging artists – and dozens of other smaller events.

“We’ve been bringing over DJs from the U.K. and Europe to host events in the three cities, and we’ve been doing some experiential marketing by taking the cars out with street teams to downtown cores, with local events with surf and skateboard shops,” said Scion Canada’s marketing manager Paul Harrison to Marketing Magazine at the time of the launch last September. “We certainly target that influencer market.”

The word “influencer” is a relatively new addition to the ad man’s lexicon. It’s basically the equivalent of buying a pair of sneakers because you saw the popular kid wearing them. An influencer shows up where you’re least expecting, and builds loyalty by associating itself with things you like. Since Scion has the same tastes as me, in music or fashion or art or whatever else, I’m supposed to like it more as a car.

Generation Y is known to advertisers as an “ad-blind” demographic. We’ve been bombarded with conventional advertisements since before we can remember, and we’ve become quite jaded, so influencers are the marketer’s newest trick to get us to buy.

And Scion is not only selling a car, but an entire lifestyle. At the auto show, I was handed a copy of Scion Magazine. It features a picture of a smiling twenty-something named Lisa, leaning out the window of her boxy xB. “It’s funny how a car can change your life,” the caption reads. “The xB is more than a car… whenever I’m cruising around, you just can’t help but take a second look.” Lisa’s Scion, which is about as “different by design” as your standard kitchen toaster, would turn heads. The red custom-painted 18-inch wheels that pop against the ultra-low white body are meant to show us Lisa’s individuality, her creative masterpiece on Scion’s “steel canvas.”

Lisa, as it happens, is the “editor-in-chief” of the clever bit of ad propaganda that Scion calls a magazine, a position which she claims she fell into “serendipitously” after importing her beloved Scion from the U.S. over a year ago.

It’s a tempting illusion. In the magazine’s sunny, overexposed pictures, beautiful people in shiny cars cruise past trendy shops on Queen West and in Mile End. Laughing, a well-dressed gang piles into the back of an xB for a daytrip. A could-be model, sporting an impeccable pixie cut and an expression of utter self-assurance, rolls up to a night-time gallery opening. This could be your life. All that’s missing is a Scion.

It’s not new for car companies to associate an idealized lifestyle with their brand. In their ads, companies like Jeep and Subaru push a thrill-seeking aesthetic, while Lexus and Audi tantalize us with the wonders of high living. And Scion is only one of many companies using influencers to attract youth buyers – Red Bull and Virgin Media are other forerunners, hosting events that cater to younger tastes and offering a curated collection of music and video on their websites. What’s striking about Scion, however, is how it taps into a disconnected generation’s need to belong and the ease with which it does so.

It’s likely that Toyota is using these unconventional methods in advertising because young people are beginning to see cars in a different way than their parents did. Issues like air pollution and climate change are influencing consumption, and car companies seem worried. Another reason that cars are becoming less desirable is that young people are more and more attracted to lifestyles that don’t involve driving.

“What it all boils down to is the effect of housing versus cost of transportation,” says Nik Luka, a McGill Architecture and Urban Planning professor who specializes in the efficient use of urban space and infrastructure. “Explicitly, what that means is, people could pay more [for housing] and not need a car, or pay less and need a car. One of the reasons that you see targeted marketing like this is because perceptions are beginning to shift. In studies on housing choice and satisfaction, younger households are more interested in living in denser neighbourhoods and not having a car,” he says.

“In Montreal, we have a dense, compact layout, and so the benefits of not having a car have surpassed the benefits of having one, especially in a neighbourhood like the Plateau, which can’t accommodate very many cars. The more you squeeze in, the more time is spent sitting stopped. So people are choosing not to drive and getting places faster… If there are viable alternatives, they should be used.”

But, he concedes, the alternatives are often underwhelming when compared to the allure of a new car.

“There’s a practical, pragmatic, logical, moral argument there… The trouble is, cars are selling a product, a physical object that gives visual pleasure. It’s much harder to sell an everyday activity,” Luka says, pointing to activities like cycling or riding public transit.

Car companies, of course, spend millions on advertising, while transit authorities cannot. Luka could think of only one exciting promotion of alternative transportation: the STM’s 1976 “Il fait beau dans l’metro” campaign, a TV commercial depicting happy public transportation riders singing and dancing while miserable drivers sat in gridlock. For the most part, however, car companies have the upper hand when it comes to attracting us.

There are 19 million registered vehicles in operation in Canada today, and over 80 per cent of us drive to work. It will be up to young people to decide whether our society will continue to be centered around the car, or whether it’s time for a new direction.