TAMPA – Score one for the suits at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.

Their apprehensions over a hip Scion marketing gimmick unwittingly made it better, admits Will Travis, vice president of ATTIK USA, an agency hired to hype Toyota’s Scion youth brand when it debuted three years ago.

Promotional schemes ATTIK came up with included plans to paste Scion posters to utility poles and such in major cities. Toyota balked, questioning the legality of that.

“We said to ourselves, ‘Oh corporate.’” Travis recalls at the recent Ward’s Automotive Spring Training Conference presented by Autobytel here.

So the agency revised plans and ended up using magnetic-backed Scion posters for the product-awareness scheme. Young people proceeded to rip them off. That pleased Travis.

“They took them and put them on their refrigerators,” he says. “Suddenly, I am right where I want to be with the Scion message: In their homes.”

It can be tricky marketing to young car buyers, Travis says. “Youth marketing is very thick and very fast moving, and for an audience with an attention deficit.”

On the other hand, 76.7 million members of Generation Y, born between 1977-1994, are influential consumers, he says. “They are not just the annoying kid with jeans hanging off his butt and who doesn’t like car dealerships.”

They make up a diverse social group that is time-poor, tech-savvy and connected. Family and friends highly influence their buying decisions, Travis says. He offers these automotive marketing tips on how to reach Gen Y buyers and gain their trust:

  • Demonstrate you’re worthy of their attention. Respect them, but don’t try to act like them.
  • Involve them, particularly at the dealership level, by encouraging them to see the product and take a test drive.
  • Empower them. Join the conversation, but don’t control it. Make it feel fluid.

ATTIK’s efforts to interest young consumers in Scion included edgy TV spots, Internet games and online viral advertising.

Some of the latter might make sensitive viewers wince. In one viral ad for the boxy xB model, a cartoon character spurts blood while using a machete to reshape his head to look like a box.

“We also had people walking around in public with boxes on their heads,” Travis says. “Students work cheap.”

To enhance the youthful brand image, he prefers all Scion buyers be age 21 and under. “We felt like telling Toyota, ‘Don’t sell Scions to old people.’”

But the reality is that there are older people who like Scion and younger people who don’t, say dealers at the conference.

Michael Baker, CEO of a dealership group in San Diego, says many of his Scion buyers are empty nesters and retirees who like the vehicles’ functionality.

Daniel Buechlein, a sales manager at Usbelhor Toyota-Scion in the farming community of Jasper, IN, tells Ward’s: “We don’t have Generation Y in our market. We have farm boys. And they like pickup trucks, not Scions.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com