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Driving Miss Daisy's Prius

Carmakers should be marketing their hybrids to older baby boomers

Attention automakers: You’re doing it all wrong when selling your hybrid cars. Those Toyota commercials featuring R&B singer Raphael Saadiq and hipsters grooving in a Prius V? Not your market. At least yet.

Car companies have long pitched their rides to the young, but the biggest buyers of hybrid cars in the US are the 60-plus set. A forthcoming study from researchers at Baylor University in Texas gives some clues as to why. The “baby boom” generation, the report’s authors point out, controls about half of consumer spending in the US, and their tastes are distinctly green.

The researchers surveyed 314 buyers of hybrid cars from Toyota, Ford and Honda who had an average age of nearly 70. More than two-thirds of those surveyed had an income of more than $50,000 a year and nearly 90% held university or post-graduate degrees.

The study found that these buyers most valued the pride and prestige of driving an environmentally responsible car, as well as price and quality. Driving excitement did not play a part in their satisfaction (just as well, since most hybrids aren’t exactly road rockets.) In other words, older drivers are more concerned about being seen in a car that screams green than one that screams down the highway.

“Elderly consumers are identified as more inclined than young people to engage in pro-environmental behaviors,” Jay Yoo, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of family and consumer sciences, told Quartz in an email. “But emotional value may not be relevant in buying green products if the emphasis is more on the consumers’ responsibility.”

Yoo noted that today’s older consumers came of age during the height of the environmental movement in the 1970s, and for some the propensity to pay more for products perceived as green, whether it’s organic food or a $30,000 car, has been baked into their purchasing habits.

That suggests carmakers should tweak their marketing: less Raphael and more Rolling Stones, for one thing. And emphasize the greener-than-thou psychic benefits of buying a hybrid. And keep hyping the fuel savings.

That said, don’t completely ignore the younger generations. While the offspring of the baby boomers may be a paler shade of green than their parents, their children are coming of age in the age of climate change. “Today’s youth will become more pro-environmental as they get older, at the same time, they will earn more money to afford to pay [for] those green products,” Yoo says.

There is one automaker that can probably safely ignore the study. While hard numbers are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence and statements by Tesla Motors chief executive Elon Musk indicates that buyers of the Silicon Valley company’s sporty Model S electric car skew younger and wealthier than the average Prius hyper-miler. Speed, it seems, can still trump saving the planet.

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