OPINION: Here’s a very basic question; why are utes so popular here?
The most common answer you’re likely to get on social media is that they fit ‘the Kiwi lifestyle’. They can tow the boat, lug trailers, and tackle gravel, while also being a slick, irreplaceable partner-in-crime for tradies and farmers alike.
Yet, off the back of how utes have been turned into a political football in this country thanks to the Clean Car Debate and loads of angry Facebook users, this fairly straightforward definition has been called into question from numerous corners.
An opinion piece published on Stuff yesterday called into question the ‘aggressive marketing’ behind utes. It claimed that aggressive, masculine-flavoured, nature-adjacent marketing was a big part of the rise of local ute sales (characterising skids and jumps as being uniquely ‘masculine’ when there’s plenty of women who love indulging in both).
It’s a good, interesting read overall, but one that’s missing a handful of pieces when it comes to answering the question of how New Zealand got here. Question one is a straight-forward one; have utes always been this popular?
Well, no. They haven’t. Despite all the fabulous adverts about Barry Crump and all of those national identity ties to farming and the great outdoors spanning generation after generation, the current popularity of utes is actually a fairly new thing. Time to dive into some stats!
Throwing back the clock to 2009, and archival data from the Motor Industry Association shows that just two utes were in the year’s top 10 best sellers. The Toyota Corolla led the year with 4,699 registrations, with the Hilux in second on 3,047. To find the next ute in line, the Ranger, you had to look all the way down in eighth.
The following year was a similar story, too, with the Hilux again second to the Corolla, and the Ranger this time ninth, two spots behind the only other ute in the top 10 for the year, the Nissan Navara.
When did things change then? Most likely around 2014 and 2015. By 2014, four utes were in the national top 10. The Ranger had overtaken the Hilux 6,330 to 5,774, but both were still pipped by the eternal Corolla. And then in 2015 the inevitable; the Corolla went down to the Ranger (6,818 to 6,514), and four utes were in the top five thanks to the Holden Colorado and Nissan Navara.
A lot of other things happened to our car-buying habits during this time, too. The Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon both started fading (it’s amazing to think just how popular these icons were until the bitter end). In fact, the sedan market tanked completely. In 2009, four of the top 10 cars were sedan-based. By 2015 that number had shrunken to just one; the Commodore.
Conversely, something arguably just as significant as the ute phenomena took place; SUV popularity started to explode. In 2009 and 2010, not a single SUV cracked the national top 10. By 2015, there were three.
Here’s another interesting point. These utes didn’t merely just climb the charts; their sales figures exploded. In 2019 9,485 Rangers and 7,126 Hiluxs were registered in New Zealand. In 10 years, Hilux sales more than doubled and Ranger sales increased by a factor of more than six.
Stuff’s assertions regarding the way that these utes are marketed is an interesting talking point, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated. When was the last time you saw a television advert for anything other than a double-cab ute, particularly from one of the country’s mainstream manufacturers?
Ford and Toyota, for example, rarely produce any television commercials for anything other than their ute offerings. As far as what’s currently on the silver screen, Ford NZ somehow made a Ranger ad that appeals to ute buyers with a song by Shawn Mendez, while Toyota NZ has a hilarious ad that plots the role of frog DNA in the creation of dinosaurs.
Barring these, to our knowledge the only other model in either brand’s arsenal with a current television advertising campaign is the Yaris and web-focused campaign for the Puma. Toyota’s ‘Start Your Impossible’ Tokyo 2020 campaign is also on the airwaves at the moment, to be fair, and a campaign for the big new Land Cruiser seems inevitable.
It’s unlikely that we’ll see a television advert for the likes of the Camry or Focus ever again. Until they get a pure electric or hydrogen powertrain, anyway.
In Ford’s case, it’s a similar tale on social media. Almost half of its last 100 posts on Instagram are devoted to the Ranger alone, despite the marque offering 11 different nameplates. To give Toyota credit, it offers plenty of love to other models on social media. But, it’s a lot cheaper to schedule a social media post than it is to produce a full 30-second commercial.
And yes, I can hear a few people scolding that this is a bit of a simplistic view. Advertising is about more than just TV and Instagram. For those people, I’ll acknowledge that influencer ads for cars they’ve had handed to them (often MGs, oddly enough) are as ‘aggressive’ on the brain than any deep-voice, true-blue, jumpy skiddy off-road ute ad.
To take the Stuff point and tweak it; it’s not necessarily that utes are marketed more aggressively than everything else, it’s that barely anything else sees the same level of marketing investment.
So, back to the original question … are utes marketed aggressively in New Zealand? Maybe. But, not necessarily in the way Stuff suggests.