As Nissan and Chevrolet prepare to launch their groundbreaking electric vehicles later this year, they face a huge task educating the public about just what they are – and aren’t.
Marketing a new car is always a challenge, and something that can cost a maker as much as $100 million for even a relatively conventional product. Now add a battery drivetrain and the challenge – if not the cost – could go up exponentially.
The Nissan Leaf is a pure electric vehicle with a range of about 100 miles and. Nissan calls it the first mass-market electric vehicle – though some might quibble with that and point to the battery cars the industry tried to push in the early 1990s.
The technology under the hood of the Chevy Volt is even more unusual. General Motors calls it an extended-range electric vehicle (rather than a plug-in hybrid, a difference a bit more than just semantics). The Volt can travel about 40 miles on a full charge. At that point, a small gasoline engine starts to provide up to 300 additional miles. When it runs out, pull into a fuel station to fill up for another 300 miles, just like a traditional car. It’s still an electric vehicle because the gasoline engine drives a generator, so it never directly powers the vehicle.
Getting consumers to understand those concepts is a huge challenge for the two automakers as they approach the limited launches of these new kinds of vehicles. And it’s complicated by concerns about what the technologies actually do – something Rush Limbaugh’s recent, misguided rant about Volt shows won’t be easy to overcome.
Marketers will not only have to explain the technologies, but help filter out those who would and wouldn’t be good candidates for the vehicles, what they can expect to do with them and how their higher initial price premiums will fit into a buyer’s budget..
Rich Thomaselli, who analyzes advertising strategy for the industry publication AdvertisingAge, said one ad could feature a husband kissing his wife goodbye before heading off to work. The wife asks “Do you have your lunch?” “Yes,” the husband answers. “Do you need money for gas?” “Nope, don’t need money for gas.” The scenario could be played out repeatedly with the husband finally saying “I don’t need gas money anymore.”
“Part of the advertising will be more anecdotal in nature,” Thomaselli predicted.
So far, Thomaselli said he has been impressed by the Volt’s limited advertising, which was done by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Chevrolet’s new advertising agency. The first ad is very stark, relies heavily on text and does not show the car. (Click Here to take a look.)
“I thought that advertisement was just fabulous,” Thomaselli said.
Nissan’s Leaf advertising is focused on Apple’s new iAd platform for the iPhone. It’s a cool new technology to advertise something that is, itself, a cool new technology.
Thomaselli said that GM and Nissan probably won’t want to do any comparison ads – one of the great automotive advertising traditions – not comparing Leaf and Volt, anyway, since the two are so different, but he added they will have to find a way to help the public understand those differences.
“The general public probably looks at both of them and thinks they’re both plug-ins and thus, the same car,” Thomaselli said.
Nissan and GM also are facing the prospect of explaining why buyers should pay more for a car than they are accustomed with the benefit being reduced fuel costs. Since GM announced that the Volt would be priced at $41,000, (Click Here for the full story), the Internet has been filled with commentators suggesting the price is too high. But when buyers take into consideration all of their vehicle costs – including fuel, the Volt looks a lot better.
The Leaf faces a similar problem, although at a price of $32,780, consumer response has been better than that for the Volt. Purchasers of both cars are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit, plus state and local taxes in some areas – and both makers are promoting lease prices of $350 a month, which should soften the blow for Volt, in particular.
Selling any battery-based vehicle on price can be a challenge, in part because the advantages depend on a mix of driver behavior, gasoline prices, local utility rates and other factors. Under the most ideal conditions, however, industry experts contend it can cost as little as a penny or two per mile to run on electricity, as little as a tenth as much as driving on gasoline.
Thomaselli said bringing in the cost of fuel will hit consumers in their wheelhouse. “You don’t need to pay for gas.”