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The sharing economy and prevalence of ride-sharing services certainly didn’t help. But these recent developments are not actually the primary cause of the troubles of car wax manufacturers like Turtle Wax and Meguair’s. Those troubles started a couple of decades ago, when teenagers in the early 2000s revealed, through their behaviors, that they just did not care that much about cars. Whereas nostalgic accounts of Americana recall Baby Boomers as teens in their driveways, lovingly working on and polishing their muscle cars, contemporary generations of millennial and Gen Z drivers just want the car to work. If it needs a polish, they want to drive it through an automated machine or pay someone to do it, quickly and inexpensively.

Such shifts demanded a radical redefinition of the marketing approaches adopted by wax and polish manufacturers, as representatives of the wider car-care industry. For decades, they had competed to devise and produce mass market polishes that any driver might use during the regular weekend activity of washing and waxing their cars at home. At the same time, they sought innovations and more niche offerings, developing the highest end versions that promised a mirror-like shine to the finish and lasting protection. At the very highest end, some of these niche waxes sell for as much as $850 per jar.

The niches still exist, if in somewhat smaller proportions. There are still gearheads, most of whom follow Formula One racing, watch shows like “Graveyard Carz,” attend car shows, and join car-oriented interest groups that host rallies and events. Thus the channels to reach these consumers are relatively clear. The high-end niche brands place advertising on race cars and billboards, buy ad time during car-focused shows, and sponsor various events.

That leaves less space for the mass market brands like Turtle Wax to reach these aficionados. Instead, they are left with the prospect of trying to sell a moderately priced product to an audience of consumers who don’t really want it. One option is to seek a lower price point, hoping that if the cost is low enough, people will recognize the need to protect their cars and make the purchase. However, on this end of the market spectrum, the big brands again face intense competition from small-batch rebottlers that charge extremely low prices. These companies purchase bulk amounts of a generic wax, add in some fragrance and color, develop a novel branding strategy, and then sell the rebottled product online. Their costs are thus very low, and they can easily scoop up consumers who just want an inexpensive, nice smelling wax to get the job done.

With specialty boutique brands in the passing lane, and rebottlers taking up the slow vehicle lane, traditional wax brands find themselves stuck in the middle lane of this competitive highway. But as driving and car ownership trends continue to shift, such that fewer people own cars, and even those who have them tend use them as tools rather than falling in love with their vehicles, the middle is not a great place to be, and the ultimate outcome may see these brands taking the next exit.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do younger car consumers differ from previous generations?
  2. How are car-care companies targeting these younger consumers?
  3. What are some of challenges facing mass market car-care brands?
  4. What competitive advantages do boutique brands and rebottlers enjoy?

Source: Roy Furchgott, “A Generation Gap in Car Wax,” The New York Times, May 17, 2020.