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Despite the sluggish economy, it's been a pretty good year for luxury carmakers. Mercedes, Volvo and BMW have all seen double-digit growth. But the German carmaker Audi is the standout. It has seen a near-tenfold growth in the last 20 years.
As NPR's Sonari Glinton reports now, the company has also become the new status car for young, urban professionals.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: In the pop-star, car-commercial smackdown, the Fiat 500 flaunts Jennifer Lopez.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
JENNIFER LOPEZ: This is my world. This place inspires me.
GLINTON: Chrysler rolls with Eminem.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV AD)
EMINEM: This is the Motor City, and this is what we do.
GLINTON: And Audi - not to be outdone - produced a whole series of Internet thriller movies with Justin Timberlake.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERNET AD)
JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: One, don't ever point that gun at me again and two, no more games.
GLINTON: Not only has J.T. brought sexy back, he also helped do the same for Audi. The company uses very viral marketing that focuses on very young consumers. For instance, Justin Timberlake is about a decade younger than JLo or Eminem.
SCOTT KEOGH: We are generally the youngest brand.
GLINTON: Scott Keogh is head of marketing at Audi.
KEOGH: We have the most affluent consumer, for the most part, and we do have the youngest consumer. It's an average age of somewhere around 47 or 48, and most of our competitors are up - deep into the 50s.
GLINTON: So essentially, you have the yuppies.
KEOGH: I think we don't because I'll give you my definition - or, I think of how you're giving a definition of a yuppie, is a crass, aggressive...
GLINTON: No, no, no. This is...
KEOGH: ...somewhat in-your-face flashy money, and I think that is the exact opposite of what Audi is.
GLINTON: Whether they're called yuppies or not, Audi is winning young consumers in the U.S., where it's gone from about 1 percent of the luxury car market to nearly 10 percent in 20 years. But Audi has come a lot further than that. Almost exactly 25 years ago, Audi was at the center of a controversy over unintended acceleration after a piece ran on "60 Minutes." Later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported it wasn't able to find a problem that would produce sudden acceleration and brake failure. That happened after the brand was almost killed off in the U.S.
KEOGH: We sold 75,000 units before, and only a couple years after, we went down to 12,000 units, so this was a dramatic impact on the brand.
GLINTON: After being clobbered that hard, what else was there to do? Rebecca Lindland is a senior analyst with IHS Automotive.
REBECCA LINDLAND: Audi did a couple of things. They made, first of all, enormous investment in the brand. And when I say enormous, I mean hundreds of millions of dollars.
GLINTON: Lindland says the company focused in an intense way on the design of the cars to make sure they stood apart: changing the look, the proportions of the vehicles.
LINDLAND: Things that consumers may not understand, but it's like good bone structure. You don't know why somebody's absolutely beautiful but at the end of the day, it comes to their bone structure. It's the same thing with cars. You know, it's like the perfect cheekbones and the appropriate eyebrow formation, and everything kind of comes together.
GLINTON: Those proportions have not only caught on with younger buyers in the U.S., but with Chinese bureaucrats. Last year, Audi sales were up nearly 50 percent in China. Last month, they were up 25 percent in the U.S.
LINDLAND: They provided people with a brand that not everybody sees all over the place, and then they did it with really cool headlamps.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GLINTON: Rebecca Lindland says young consumers, especially luxury buyers, would rather stand out than blend in, but in an understated way. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEXY BACK")
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