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Car culture: Millennials are driving the U.S. auto brand landscape

by | May 25, 2017 | Public Relations

Millennials may not be as indifferent to American car culture as is often suggested—their aspirations for luxury are driving the U.S. automotive brand landscape, according to the latest EquiTrend Study from Harris Poll.

In this year’s study, Mercedes-Benz reclaimed the Luxury Automotive Brand of the Year honor from Lexus; Mercedes-Benz held the title 2011–2015. Toyota maintained the Non-Luxury Automotive Brand of the Year for the third consecutive year. Notably, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota’s equity scores rank in the top 25 percent of all brands measured, across industries.

“Millennials are changing not just what we want to drive, but how we drive and how we shop for cars,” said Joan Sinopoli, vice president of brand solutions at The Harris Poll, in a news release. “While maybe not a full-blown romance, the flirtation with cars as part of our culture is alive and well with younger generations. Millennials aspire to luxury, and this is nowhere more evident than in the automotive industry, where they are behind Mercedes-Benz’s equity strength.”

According to the research, seven of the top ten millennial car brands are luxury brands, versus five each for Generation X and baby boomers. Mercedes-Benz boasts an equity score of 73 among millennials, compared to an equity rating of 66 among consumers overall. Aspiration, however, outpaces ownership as millennials are much less likely to actually own luxury cars than older generations.

Harris Poll car branding

How they drive: Millennials jam to Beats 

Fueled by younger generations, car audio equity is on the rise, up nearly 2 equity points since 2016. Beats rose 12 equity points to succeed Bose, which has held the Car Audio Brand of the Year title for the past five years. The research indicates that millennials may be behind Beats’ success—33 percent of millennials are familiar with Beats, compared to 17 percent of consumers overall.

“Millennials are extremely familiar with, and think highly of both brands, but they may more strongly associate Beats with mobility whereas they associate Bose (Home Entertainment Electronics Brand of the Year) with high quality sound in-and-around the home,” said Sinopoli.

While not an award category this year, OEM infotainment equity is increasing year-over-year, with evidence pointing to millennials impacting the category’s growth.

“With the growth in car audio and infotainment equity, we see cars not-so-gradually changing from a durable to a true lifestyle purchase, a mobile business and entertainment hub,” said Sinopoli.

How they shop: Millennials discover CarGurus

CarGurus.com makes its debut as Online Auto Shopping Brand of the Year, jumping seven equity points and squeaking past KBB.com, which held the title since 2012.

“There is a storm brewing when it comes to how consumers shop for cars,” said Sinopoli. “KBB is an incredibly strong brand, but CarGurus has touched millennials in a more relevant way.  Besides the irreverent name, CarGurus’ landing page boasts great deals, great dealers, transparency, and a powerful search engine. Add that to Instant Market Value with their deal ratings, and it’s a compelling promise to a young car buyer — or dreamer.”

While KBB.com is equally well known across generations, 25 percent of millennials are familiar with CarGurus.com, compared to 16 percent of consumers overall. Familiarity is one of the three main factors determining brand equity, and Harris Poll’s study suggests that those who know CarGurus know them very well.

“Consumers familiar with the brand think as highly of CarGurus as they do the legendary KBB, suggesting they might be a ‘fan brand’ in the making, like Five Guys several years ago,” said Sinopoli.

Other key findings:
Additional auto findings include:

  • While Lincoln’s brand equity remains below the Luxury Auto category average, the automaker’s brand equity increased significantly (3.4 points) since 2014, coinciding with Lincoln’s commercials featuring actor Matthew McConaughey. Comparing generations, the brand’s equity is highest among millennials. Since 2013, Lincoln’s brand equity has increased 6 points.
  • Subaru is the clear fast riser in the Non-Luxury Auto category. In fifth place this year, Subaru builds on its equity as the brand focuses on its SUV/Crossover roots and continues its Love campaign.
  • Tesla has been the top momentum auto brand for the last four years. While it still has a way to go to compete with top car brands in equity, its strong momentum places it among the new “next big thing” home automation brands, second only to Amazon Echo.
  • Volkswagen’s equity is showing slow signs of recovery after its emissions scandal, but the automaker continues to struggle on the brand momentum scale, with 35 percent of consumers considering the brand “on the way down.”

The Harris Poll 2017 EquiTrend Luxury Automotive Brand of the Year

1. Mercedes-Benz
2. BMW
3. Genesis
4. Lexus
5. Porsche

Other Luxury Automotive Brands in the study ranked below category average (alphabetically): Acura, Audi, Cadillac, Infiniti, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln, Tesla, Volvo.

The Harris Poll 2017 EquiTrend Non-Luxury Automotive Brand of the Year

1. Toyota
2. Honda
3. Chevrolet
4. Ford
5. Subaru
6. Nissan
7. GMC
8. Mazda

Other Non-Luxury Automotive Brands in the study ranked below category average (alphabetically): Buick, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Hyundai, Jeep, Kia, MINI Cooper, Mitsubishi, Ram, Volkswagen

The Harris Poll 2017 EquiTrend Tire Brand of the Year

1. Michelin
2. Pirelli
3. Goodyear
4. Bridgestone
5. BFGoodrich
6. Cooper

Other Tire Brands in the study ranked below category average (alphabetically): Continental, Dunlop, Firestone, General, Hankook, Kelly, Kumho, Uniroyal, Yokohama

The Harris Poll 2017 EquiTrend Car Audio Brand of the Year

1. Beats
2. Bose
3. Bang and Olufsen
4. harman/kardon
5. Pioneer

Other Car Audio Brands in the study ranked below category average (alphabetically): Alpine, Boston Acoustics, Clarion, Infinity, JBL, Panasonic, Sony

The Harris Poll 2017 EquiTrend Online Auto Shopping Brand of the Year

1. CarGurus.com
2. Kelley Blue Book (KBB.com)
3. Edmunds.com

Other Online Auto Shopping Brands in the study ranked below category average (alphabetically): AutoTrader.com, Cars.com, eBay Motors, TRUECar.com
See all EquiTrend rankings here.

The 2017 Harris Poll EquiTrend Study is based on a sample of 102,617 U.S. consumers ages 15 and over surveyed online, in English, between December 30, 2016 and February 21, 2017.  The survey took an average of 30 minutes to complete. The total number of brands rated was 4,052. Each respondent was asked to rate a total of 40 randomly selected brands. Each brand received approximately 1,000 ratings. 

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