From rider to driver: How the pandemic has created a new type of car buyer

Amy Marentic / December 2020

I’ve worked in the automotive industry for almost three decades, and it’s fair to say I’ve seen some changes — from the growth of electric vehicles to the promise of self-driving cars. But the changes over the past six months have been beyond anything I’ve experienced in my entire career. The traditional playbook that previously served auto marketers well is obsolete.

Fortunately, amid all the chaos comes an unexpected opportunity: Droves of people who never thought they would own a car are now looking to buy one. It’s a trend that makes complete sense. While many of us would once have been happy taking a ride-share or using public transport, only 10% of people currently think these options are safe.

An illustration of a bus with an exclamation point over it represents the claim that 10% of people currently think options like ride-sharing or public transport are safe.

As a result, even those who have never considered buying a car are now looking for the safety, value, and freedom that comes with owning your own vehicle. In the U.S. alone, more than 3 million people who don’t currently own a car are considering purchasing one.1 I call them the new new car buyers.

To better understand these consumers, and how they differ from traditional car buyers, Google's Human Truths team, a group of behavioural science experts, carried out research in 11 countries.2 Here are four things they learned.

Four ways new new car buyers differ from traditional car buyers

They’re more likely to use YouTube in the car-buying process They’re more likely to consider electric vehicles They’re more likely to worry about financing options They’re more comfortable purchasing a vehicle entirely online

They’re not “car people”

New new car buyers are 1.3X more likely to be 18 to 34 years old and 1.2X more likely to live in an urban environment than traditional car buyers. While they have no trouble navigating New York City’s subway system or the São Paulo Metro, when it comes to buying a car, they don’t know where to start.

That’s why they disproportionately turn to digital platforms to learn more. In Brazil, for example, new new car buyers are 1.5X more likely to use YouTube in the car-buying process than traditional car buyers. This type of buyer is using YouTube and brand videos to gain confidence in their decisions. The most popular videos are those that explain features and specs, followed by those that compare vehicles.

New new car buyers are 1.3X more likely to be 18 to 34 years old and 1.2X more likely to live in an urban environment than traditional car buyers.

What it means for marketers: To reach this new car buyer, expand your media strategy on mass digital platforms like Search and YouTube, with messaging that reflects that buying motivations have changed. In addition to mass reach approaches, consider using age (younger) and geographic (urban) targeting combined with in-market and affinity audiences.


They’re open to electric vehicles

The new new car buyer considers around two more vehicle segments than the traditional car buyer, and they’re often not comparing like-for-like car segments. This means auto marketers have the opportunity to influence buyers who may be comparing SUVs with electric vehicles. For marketers in Australia, Canada, and Germany, electric vehicles are of particular interest to this new buyer. Australians who have in the past not considered buying a car are 3.9X more likely to consider an electric vehicle than their traditional car-buying peers.

What it means for marketers: Quench this new buyer’s thirst for information by showing them what differentiates your brand and your vehicles using their language rather than the technical “car guy” terminology.


They’re nervous about financing

Across the countries where we carried out our research, new new car buyers were more concerned than traditional car buyers about financing their purchase. In Japan, for example, they’re 1.6X more likely to have concerns about getting financing.

It’s not that they are less qualified purchasers; it’s just something new and intimidating, with terms and processes they’ve not encountered before. In fact, they may be more open to buying instead of leasing, as one person we interviewed for the research told us. “I’ve never had a car,” Steve from the Bronx in New York City told us. “So I’d like it to really be mine.”

What it means for marketers: Reassure potential car buyers with clear resources that explain financing in simple terms. The more of the process they can complete online, in the comfort of their own homes, the less overwhelming they’ll find it. Also, consider addressing their needs by answering their immediate questions in the moment they are seeking answers. For example, expand your search coverage strategy with category terms to help ease their concerns.


They’re excited for that special day

The new new car buyer is someone who’s at home online and who would not flinch at the idea of buying a set of wheels entirely online. In Japan, they’re 2.4X more likely than traditional car buyers to want to purchase a vehicle entirely online.

While their purchase paths might be slightly different to those of traditional buyers, the final destination is just as important, exciting, and meaningful, as one of the people we interviewed told us. “When I go to buy my new car, I will be dressed up nicely,” Naomi from Los Angeles said. “I will definitely be excited — buying a car is such a celebratory event.” This type of excitement creates enormous opportunities for building brand loyalty.

What it means for marketers: Ensure your online steps are fast and seamless, and help generate the excitement that new new car buyers crave. Make this experience memorable, and you’ll turn them into loyal lifetime customers.

The pandemic has changed consumers as we knew them. And, while we can’t predict the future, these shifts in behaviour could bring lifetime value to automakers. Understanding expectations, as well as the new ways people shop and buy, will be critical to acquire and retain these customers.

With more car shoppers online, it’s time for the auto industry to simplify the journey