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Toyota matures its Scion youth brand

7:46 AM, Jan 2, 2013   |    comments
Scion's new-for-2013 FR-S sport coupe. FR-S stands for front-engine, rear-wheel drive sport.(Photo: AP)
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LOS ANGELES -- It's called growing up.

Like the twentysomething who graduates to cabernet from six-packs and comes to appreciate creased slacks instead of ratty jeans, Toyota is taking the same approach with its youth sub-brand.

Scion was Toyota's iconoclast for almost a decade, a grand effort to reach Generation Y as if they are an entirely new kind of customer. The lineup stressed personalization and quirkiness to set itself apart from the cars that everyone else drove.

But Toyota's once-highflying division is facing lackluster sales. To fight back, the company is aiming Scion's marketing toward a slightly more mature shopper - emphasizing traditional showroom draws, such as performance and sophisticated looks. Instead of advertising through non-traditional, off-beat art or music publications, Scion is running TV commercials on NBC and ESPN.

"I don't know that the trendsetters are necessarily the target (customer) anymore," says Bill Fay, a Toyota group vice president. Scion will not "walk away from them," but the brand is evolving.

"Youth has changed in the past 10 years. As youth changed," he says, Toyota has had to "look at the brand."

The change is starting to show up in Toyota's Scion lineup. The reigning star is a decidedly mainstream rear-wheel-drive sports car, the FR-S, which at a base price of $25,255 before delivery charges are added, tested the upward limits of how much Scion customers were willing to pay.

Scion sold 1,350 of the FR-S last month, second only to - and not far behind - the brand's perennial best seller, the tC sporty coupe. Those two models, along with the xD subcompact, xB boxy crossover and iQ minicar, make up the entire Scion line.

When full-year 2012 sales figures are reported later this week, they are likely to show all Scion sales added up to less than half the sales of a single Toyota crossover, the RAV4.

To recharge the brand, Toyota appointed Doug Murtha, 47, a veteran product planner to head Scion. Murtha, operating from Toyota's U.S. headquarters in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, downplays the decision to recast the marketing to focus on an older customer, saying, "We still are a youth brand" that seeks 18- to 34-year-old buyers.

Really, Murtha says, Scion is trying to clear up a mismatch. Scion learned from its focus groups that those who were actually interested in buying the car thought that Scion's marketing was being pitched to those younger than themselves. The goal is to "recast the image of our buyer," which means "notching up from young 20s to mid-20s."

The age difference might not sound like much, but a slightly older buyer is more likely to have graduated college, hold a job and qualify more easily for credit. To attract them, Scion started a mentoring program and business incubator to encourage young entrepreneurs, a big step from sponsoring alternative music and action sports in a way that appealed to younger buyers in the past.

Even Scion's emphasis on personalizing vehicles - one of the original cornerstones of the brand as a way of reaching Gen Y by focusing on individuality - is getting a makeover. Accessories of the future will be "less cosmetic and more performance" oriented, Murtha says. "What we are hearing is they are interested in personalizing, just more subtle and selective."

That means fewer wild vehicles or crazy color selections - "a splash of color," rather than a wholesale redo of the interior, Murtha says.

How will the new approach be received?

Not a bad idea, says Denny Huang of Long Beach, Calif., a board member on the Scion Evolution club and the owner of a 2004 Scion xB. He says the FR-S sports car put the "spark" back into the brand despite its higher price tag, luring some former owners back to Scion.

Now, "to light up the brand, they need to come up with another car," he says. He suggests a fun pickup.

Murtha won't talk about vehicle plans except to say he isn't afraid of pushing the limits.

"The reason Scion is here is to experiment," he says.

USA Today

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