Your parents’ Chevrolet affects your car choice, study says

October 29, 2013

Automakers and dealers spend nearly $33 billion a year to help you decide what kind of car to drive. But do all of those ads have any more influence than your parent’s Chevrolet? Or Ford? Or Chrysler, Mazda or Buick, for that matter?

A group of researchers including Michigan State University economist Soren T. Anderson says maybe not. Consumers are much more likely to buy the same brand of car their parents recently chose, according to their new study.

At first blush, the idea that your parents’ car choices would substantially influence yours may seem unlikely. After all, automobiles are big purchases that many people research assiduously. And, give or take some wood trim or heated seats, cars are more similar than not. They vary more by class and size than they do by brand.

Buyers can find similar options across multiple brands. The Ford Escape, Honda CRV or Toyota RAV4, and many others if they want a small SUV. The Ford Focus, Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla if they want a small sedan.

This is where parents’ choices seem to have real influence. If your parents bought the Escape, you are more likely to buy the Focus. If they chose the CRV, you are more likely to buy the Civic. On average, children are 39 percent more likely to choose a brand if their parents chose the same brand, the study found.

It turns out that car preferences are, in some measure, a learned behavior. If your mom or dad rave about the reliability or the trunk space of the family Impala, you likely soak up a bit of that bias. And if you rode in a car day in and day out, you were likely to develop a taste for “minor design details” or have “nostalgic childhood associations” with a car, the study says.

It is akin to findings in a past study that said a woman is more likely to work outside the home when she is married to a man whose mother did the same. It seems that the family model is more likely to be repeated when it is familiar.

The researchers relied on the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a long-running survey that follows multiple households of the same families through the generations, to draw their conclusions.

For car makers and dealers, the paper’s findings suggest that established car brands have a built-in advantage over upstarts — failures such as Pontiac and Oldsmobile, notwithstanding.

If automakers can break through and sell cars to people, the next generation of auto purchasers will lean their way. Not only that, but individuals tend to be brand loyal throughout their lives, something the car industry has long known. That’s why Toyota sells compact Corollas as well as more-upscale Avalons. Or why newer brands in the American market, such as Hyundai, have moved from Accents and Sonatas to also sell the luxury Genesis and Equus models.

“The stronger are brand preferences, the more valuable it is to keep consumers within the brand as they move through their life cycle and demand different types of cars,” the paper said.

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