Commentary

Brand loyalists are an endangered species.

In the old days, auto makers tried to snare young buyers, then keep them as lifers by offering various step-up makes and models appealing to changing tastes and lifestyles.

That was essentially General Motors’ strategy with its vehicle divisions. Start the young ‘uns out in an affordable Chevy and nudge them up the divisional lineups as they get older and wealthier until, ideally, they end up driving Cadillacs around Boca Raton, FL.

Today, it’s an act of faith to think consumers will stick with the same auto maker until they hit the highway to heaven.

The idea of customers for life is under assault. The assailants are about 330 different vehicle nameplates on the market today. With such a huge selection and constant introductions of new products, brand loyalists can quickly become brand defectors.

Yet Toyota’s Scion brand, despite its self-styled hipness, is following the old brand-loyalty formula of trying to get them young and retain them somewhere in the fold ever after.

“The role of Scion is to appeal to a young buyer who wouldn’t buy a Toyota,” Scion General Manager Stephen Haag says.

If those Scion customers at some point decide to buy a Toyota, great. If they develop a taste (and income) for luxury, well, there’s Lexus. “We want to keep them in the family,” Haag says.

I tell him life-long brand loyalty to a product seems anachronistic, going the way of feudal knights paying homage to their liege.

Sure, you’re going to lose some customers along the way, Haag replies. But, he adds: “You’ve got to try to keep them.”

Credit Scion for innovatively marketing to youthful car buyers, even though the brand sometimes acts as if it has discovered an exotic new species.

Scion says young people want a great buying experience, fair pricing, transparent financing, quick delivery and a reliable car with a great sound system.

Who doesn’t want that, right down to the last item? Those killer audio systems in Lexus LS 460s aren’t for kids buying their first cars.

Scion delivered 170,000 vehicles in the U.S. in 2006. That’s respectable, yet far from joining Toyota in the 2-million-and-over club.

But Haag says, “Scion’s existence has never been about volume sales. Scion was created to attract customers who had never considered a Toyota.”

Now into its third year, Scion is introducing two ’08 models: the redesigned xB and the all-new xD, which replaces the xA.

Scion heeds feedback from customers, who especially like to express themselves online, Haag says. “We just sit back, watch and listen as they tell us where the brand needs to go.”

The xB is bigger and more powerful than its predecessor, he says, because “our most vocal xB owners” sent a message: “more power.”

It wasn’t just an acceleration issue. An early complaint of first-generation xB buyers was that its 108 hp engine couldn’t sufficiently power the air conditioning system on sticky-hot days.

Lesson learned: kids like to be cool.

At a preview of the ’08 Scions, some Detroit auto journalists, always anxious to opine to auto executives, list features that would make the vehicles better.

Haag responds there is a delicate balance between coming up with a fistful of features appealing to youth and setting a price that’s attractive to their thin wallets.

Haag says the auto maker is gaining knowledge as the brand matures. Scion dealers are learning a new trick or two, as well. Of Toyota’s 1,220 dealers, 950 sell Scions.

“Most dealers – not all – understand the role of Scion,” says Haag.

Most of them go with the program of not haggling over price, “but there has been some push-back by dealers who think Scion margins are too small.”

Scion’s response to those resistant dealers: you’ll make it up selling accessories, which average $1,000 a vehicle.

All but a few Scion dealership facilities are under the same roof as their big daddy Toyota stores. Corporate wants it that way.

“We want shop-shop,” Haag says, referring to cross shopping. “We want selfishly to benefit from the traffic at Toyota stores, but we think Scion brings something to them, too.”

Maybe some of those Scion intenders at the dealership will end up driving away in a Toyota after all. Or perhaps a Toyota shopper will see a Scion, get dreamy about younger days and buy one.

Either way, they’ve joined the family. For the time being, anyway.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com