News Analysis: Back-seat drivers

Car manufacturers are responding to the growing influence of children on buying decisions. Ben Bold reports.

For parents who have taken long car journeys, the words 'Are we there yet?' are no doubt familiar. That such a seemingly innocuous question can result in a stress-filled box on wheels is testament to the need for the perfect family car.

To this end, Honda this month launched a brochure aimed at children, asking them what a perfect car would be able to do. The answer from 43% of the 400 responding kids was 'fly'.

Flying may still be some way off, but there is no doubt that family cars are being reinvented to reflect the demands of their smallest and most vocal passengers. The advent in the past decade of the people carrier, or multi-purpose vehicle (MPV), with flexible interiors and features such as DVD players and PlayStations, was a clear attempt by manufacturers to make the family car journey a more enjoyable experience.

The MPV sector is expanding rapidly - it has grown by 16.4% in the past 12 months, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders - and has become one of the most competitive sectors of the car market.

For this reason manufacturers have adopted a new marketing approach: communicating directly with children in the hope that they will influence their parents.

Ford's tie-up with this year's Thunderbirds film targeted kids, as well as adults who remembered the original series. Ford also invited families to Woburn Safari Park so that adults could test-drive the Focus C-MAX while their children were taken on rides.

Entertainment value

Honda has gone a step further, producing material that targets children specifically to promote the FR-V, its first MPV. As well as cinema ads before family films such as The Incredibles, the company produced a brochure featuring comic strips and a design-your-own Honda section to occupy children while their parents test-drive cars (Marketing, 8 December). Part of its website has also been designed to entertain children.

'The reality is that when parents walk into the showroom, their children are likely to make the decision,' says Honda marketing chief Simon Thompson.

He argues that their influence is usually negative: if they don't like the car or the showroom environment, they will say 'no'; if they say 'yes', they are confirming their parents' decision.

Volkswagen has also found ways to communicate with children. For last year's launch of the Touran MPV, the company devised a promotion encouraging children to crawl into vehicles in showrooms and find furry characters hidden in the model's 39 cubby-holes. One direct mailshot included a join-the-dots drawing of the car, and another contained fridge magnets that could be arranged to spell 'Touran'.

'VW is not seen as a family car brand, unlike companies such as Vauxhall and Ford,' admits Catherine Woolfe, VW's marketing communications manager for small cars. 'We want to establish ourselves as a family car manufacturer.'

Research by family marketing specialist Logistix suggests that targeting children will play a major role in the future of family-car marketing. The agency asked parents a series of questions concerning family life, and one of the key findings was that 63% said they involve their children in more family decisions than their parents did. As Thompson puts it: 'The days of the child as second-class citizen are gone.'

More pertinent to the auto sector, 6% of the 400 adults surveyed said that their kids had the most influence on buying a car. 'This figure might seem relatively low,' says Logistix group planning director David Lawrence.

'But it ignores the indirect influence of children on their parents' choice of family car.'

As a result of the obesity debate, marketing to kids is now a highly charged subject. VW's Woolfe is aware of the need to tread carefully.

'Obviously there are ethical issues, which is why we do not market to children as such' she says.

The attitude at Honda is more robust. 'Fundamentally, we are not selling children anything,' says Thompson. 'What we say is appropriate to a child, but it is the parent who is making the choice. We are educating children about the car and involving them in the process.'

Parental aid

Charlie Snow, planning director at Delaney Lund Knox Warren, one of Vauxhall's ad agencies, agrees. 'I do not think anyone is deliberately aiming cars at children,' he says. 'The MPV work is family advertising. The reason to create marketing aimed at kids is to help parents, not just to attract children.'

There are obvious lessons for other consumer sectors. 'It is clear that kids are massively involved when it comes to regular family decisions, such as holidays and days out,' says Logistix's Lawrence. 'There is also evidence that their superior grasp of technology-driven products ensures that they are actively involved by their parents.'

Thompson, for one, believes that pester power will dominate many major family decisions - but not necessarily as a result of marketers' actions.

'Kids are incredibly media- and technology-literate and comfortable finding information on products,' he says. 'They are better at it than their parents.'

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