Millennials don’t love their cars the way their elders did, and if you make car wax, that’s a problem.
“Going after 20-and-unders is something we haven’t had to do in a long time,” said RJ de Vera, global customer engagement leader at Meguiar’s, one of the largest car care product manufacturers, which is owned by 3M.
As baby boomer car buffs age out, Meguiar’s and competitors such as Turtle Wax, Mothers, Collinite and others must court a generation that is the first to largely find car ownership a headache and driving a chore — and see cars as a encumbrance rather than a status symbol.
Makers of car-care products have had to adapt marketing strategies, trying to deal with customers’ differing demands even as producers of small-batch boutique waxes try to cherry-pick their most valuable customers, and as professional detailers trade wax for advanced compounds.
For Turtle Wax, the warning came around 2013. “Our sales had started to soften,” said Kelly Cagney, director of global brand strategy and marketing communications. In 2015 the company undertook a study that found a shift in attitudes between generations, but also within generations. One group saw car cleaning as a way to protect the value of their investment. They wanted fast, easy, inexpensive cleaning products. The other group were detailing devotees who still wanted to lovingly buff their rides to an attention-getting gleam, and were willing to pay to get it. The split was about 70 to 30.
Mr. de Vera had been observing a slow degradation since around 2007, as car show attendance dropped, car magazines collapsed and cars failed to capture the imagination of kids as they once did. “Even my nephews,” he said. “I remember being 8 or 10 and really into cars, and they didn’t care at all.”
The audience split was also apparent to Meguiar’s. “There is a mass consumer where a car is just transportation,” he said. “And there is the other person where there is a passion point and a car is more than just a box on wheels.”
Wax makers had to develop multiple product lines to address the split, as well as two advertising strategies for two audiences, all on one budget. “The reality is you run out of money really, really quick if you are going for the mass market,” Mr. de Vera said.
To attend to their longtime customers, the brands still place ads in print, radio and on TV shows like “Graveyard Carz” on the Motortrend Network, but necessity has also shifted them to other outlets that draw a male audience.
“Instead of hitting the car guy magazines, which have all but disappeared, we are on major league sports, F1,” said Jim Dvorak, spokesman for Mothers Polish. With the coronavirus shutdown of F1 racing, that advertising has moved to computer-simulated Formula One races, he said.
Attracting younger buyers has required a strategic shift to social media, video gaming and events. Turtle Wax has been placing ads on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, and in the past via Xbox. Meguiar’s will have its brand appear in CSR Racing 2, a video game for mobile devices, and it has been holding meet-and-greet events with influential social media personalities such as TJ Hunt. Last year Turtle Wax hosted 60 YouTube personalities at OTTO, an exotic car club in Arizona, where, among other activities, they took a detailing class. “We have full immersive experience that they took back to their followers,” Ms. Cagney said.
The big names have been pressed by a proliferation of boutique brands looking to pick off lucrative car-care aficionados from two ends of the spectrum, positioning themselves as superior to affordable mass-market products and less expensive than ultra-premium products, like the $850-per-jar Project J97 Ultra Refined White Brazilian Paste Wax from Chemical Guys.
That was the strategy of Dodo Juice when founded in 2007, promoting its products as handmade in small batches, labeled with distinctive psychedelic script, at a price above store brands but far below ultra-premium. In recent years it’s become so easy to start a detailing brand that Dodo Juice is facing competing products launching at a rate of “two or three a week,” said the founder, PJ Aass. “Their cost of getting to market is so low now. Start a Facebook page and give away 30 bottles, and you can have a detailing brand for $15,000,” he said. Mr. Aass calls them “re-bottlers,” because they start with a generic car wax bought by the drum. “They add water, fragrance, a color and call it theirs,” he said.
How much share boutique brands take from big manufacturers is unclear. “I have a lot of customers that are die-hard Meguiar’s brand, but when something new comes out, they are going to order that,” said Meghan Poirier, chief operations officer for the Palm Beach Motoring Group, which operates the car care product websites Autogeek and Autopia.
What does appear clear is that professional detailers are moving away from waxes and into synthetic coatings. “Waxes are becoming obsolete; they are for the enthusiast,” said DJ Patterson, president of the International Detailing Association. “Ceramic coatings are the longer-lasting paint protection.” A properly applied and maintained ceramic coating can last years, compared with around a month for wax. Professional detailers like ceramics because they require skill to properly apply, and typically bring $500 to $3,000 for an application.
Most wax makers have responded with their own ceramic “hybrid” products, like spray waxes that contain silicone dioxide or titanium dioxide, common ingredients in ceramic coatings. “A spray wax that is ceramic-infused, it makes the wax more durable but isn’t a ceramic coating,” Mr. de Vera said. “Last year there were only two of us that had a spray wax in brick-and-mortar stores.”
This year there is a lot of company as makers rush to deliver convenience at a modest price. Even smaller manufacturers, like McKee’s 37, which the managing partner Nick Rutter said generally catered to “the 30-and-older crowd,” has introduced a spray-on ceramic wax. “The younger crowd,” he said, “is gravitating to the instant gratification products.”