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Three Lessons from the Auto Industry on Product Innovation for Baby Boomers

January 28, 2011, 4:12 PM

The auto industry is slowly coming back. Not just in termsof revenues but back to boomers. For nearly all products, the baby boomers of Australia,Europe, North America, as well as Japan’s Dankai buy the high-style, high-techand high-priced vehicles. While the 20, 30 and even 40-somethings may want astylish sports car or luxury vehicle, the average buyer of these ‘most wanted’platforms are buyers well into their 50s and for some models the 60s.

Julie Halpert writes a well researched article in the AARP Bulletin How to Build a Better Car for Boomers that is worth reading for thoseinterested in the auto industry but may be more important to those would beinnovators looking for clues in their own industries. Based upon the article aswell as the work done by my colleagues at the MIT AgeLab there are three autoindustry inspired lessons that innovators in consumer products, foods, retail,apparel and even services such as travel, finance and health should consider. 

Consumer-focused innovators may create value:

  • By Stealth – Areyou calling me old?! Despite that financial realities of higher margins on carstypically sold to older buyers, the auto industry had steered clear (sorrycould not resist) of anything that looked like the old man’s car. Why? Becausethe adage borne out of the industry that keeps boomers is that you can not build an old man’s car, becauseif you do, an young man (or woman) will not buy it…but neither will an old man.So don’t look for the older driver equipment package being spotted on primetime TV or on a poster in your dealership anytime soon. You may find it on awebsite or stealthily disguised as a ‘personalization’ package offered by thedealer. It may also be hidden in good design and technology-inspiredinnovation.
  • By Design – Designfor lifestyle not for birthdays. We all know that design matters, but it is aboutmore than most people think. It is far more than usability or making a product ‘universally’accessible. Universal design and usability are baseline levels ofacceptability. If you can’t get into the car or out of it easily, no matterwhat the performance or the price it will remain parked in the dealer’s lot.Design must do more – it must mean fun. Design should reflect and reinforcelifestyle. Honda learned with the introduction of the Element – the boxy‘every-life-activity-vehicle’ – that what they thought would attract 20-something surfers was actually more popular with older boomers hauling pets, garden gear and golf clubs.
  • By Tech – High-techcan be high-excitement. And, baby boomers are buying big into tech big time.According to Forrester Research, people between ages 46 and 64 now spend moreon technology than any other age cohort. Ford Motor has invested heavily intechnology. Not just for technology sake, but to facilitate an easier, lessstressful, safer driving experience, e.g., park-assist, collision warningsystems, vehicle-to-vehicle or V2V communications, etc. (See MIT AgeLab research recently done on park assist technology in the Lincoln MKS.) Ford aswell as other manufacturers such as BMW, Nissan and Daimler have found thatwith good design new technology can be used to bring fun and connectivity tothe car, e.g., infotainment, locations-based services, etc. Easy, safe and funare an ageless. 
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