For Carmakers, What Children Want Counts

So, what do you want to drive when you grow up? It's a question that's important to car companies trying to tap into the youth market. Kids develop strong ideas about brands as early as kindergarten — and automakers are taking notes.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Our next story is about a special part of our morning audience. There are listeners riding in cars - the back seats of cars, to be specific. We're talking about the kindergarten crowd. Not only are they probably paying more attention to this program than you might expect, they're also paying more attention to the cars they're riding in than you might expect. And what very, very young people think about cars is very, very important to carmakers, as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

(Soundbite of children playing)

SONARI GLINTON: People often say that children are smart. Boy, are they.

Unidentified Child #1: I'm going to be on the radio. Come on.

Unidentified Child #2: I want to be on the radio too.

GLINTON: They're observant and perceptive, especially about cars.

Natalie Fall-White is six. She really likes the Chevy brand, with OnStar technology.

Ms. NATALIE FALL-WHITE: I like it because like you can call people on it like when you get lost. Like it has GPS for the place you want to go.

GLINTON: Not to be outdone, her friend Alana Hampton, who is five, has a very definite answer when you ask her what kind car she wants to buy.

Ms. ALANA HAMPTON: A Cadillac.

GLINTON: Really? Not a lot of young people like Cadillacs.

Ms. HAMPTON: Well, I'm the only one that likes Cadillacs anyways.

GLINTON: Why do you like them?

Ms. HAMPTON: Because it's just that they have a good speed to me and they have a good ride. And they're...

GLINTON: Both these young women show that children pay close attention to very specific features they want in cars and to car brands. According to TrueCar.com, the brands with the highest concentration of Generation Y buyers -that's 18 to 27-year-olds - are Scion, Mitsubishi, Mazda, Nissan and Volkswagen.

But in order to know what an 18-year-old five or 10 years from now might want, these companies need to know what school children want right now.

Mr. ERIC CARLSON (Volkswagen): It's about design. It's about branding. It's about looking good on the street.

GLINTON: Eric Carlson is head of group marketing for Volkswagen.

Mr. CARLSON: You know, a bright red GTI is going to have impact on even a kid in kindergarten. Such that it plants the seed: When I grow up, I want one of those.

GLINTON: Carlson says it's important not just to serve your current customer; he says car companies have to think about the future buyers.

Mr. CARLSON: So you're not necessarily embracing one demographic and following it all the way to the, you know, the cemetery.

GLINTON: Carmakers don't just worry about the impression they're making on young people. Jessica Caldwell is an analyst with Edmunds.com. She says car companies actively seek the input of young people, very young people.

Ms. JESSICA CALDWELL (Analyst, Edmonds.com): I mean it takes generally about five years for a life of a vehicle to go from design to production. And so you're looking way out. You're at, you know, what kids in junior high school and elementary school, you know, are thinking.

GLINTON: Caldwell says kids as young kindergarten are already having an impact on the kind of cars they'll end up driving. She says in recent years, carmakers have realized the importance of knowing what the buyers of the future want. All they have to do is ask them.

Ms. CALDWELL: So you go to different schools, different demographics, and just talk to the kids, see what they're interested in. You know, you bring a few prototypes by, see what they like what they like, what they don't like.

(Soundbite of children playing)

GLINTON: Caldwell says carmakers need to be careful with their brands. If they damaged today, it's not just this generation of buyers that could turn away from them, but the next one and the one after that. Plus, they do grow up so fast.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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