Electric cars face marketing short circuit

The motor manufacturing industry, already devastated by the recession, has a tough challenge on its hands when it comes to marketing electric vehicles to confused consumers.

After decades of promoting their products to a very responsive and knowledgeable audience, car marketers now face the biggest challenge they are likely to encounter in their careers: that of selling the unknown.

Most consumers are still unsure about the basic aspects of electric vehicles (EVs), including how to charge them and how far they can drive on a 'full tank', so marketers face a difficult job convincing the public to ditch petrol-engine cars in favour of untried and untested technologies.

According to Alex Conaway, Honda group account director at ad agency Wieden & Kennedy, electric-car marketers have to overcome an unprecedented absence of consumer awareness. 'There is a huge lack of understanding about how they work and what you do with them - it is a grey area marketers need to make clear,' he says.

It remains a difficult time for the automotive industry. Few sectors have suffered more during the recession, with US manufacturers General Motors and Chrysler left on the brink of collapse before being rescued by the state. In the UK, sales of new cars were kept afloat by the government's scrappage scheme, which came to an end in March.

However, there is promise of a smoother ride ahead. Over the next two years, mass-market automotive manufacturers will begin launching the first widely available and affordable EVs, a development that many claim will herald the eventual demise of the internal combustion engine.

Nissan will be the first marque to launch such a car in the UK, with the debut of its small EV, Leaf, in February next year. Its sister brand, Renault, is preparing the roll-out of four electric models - Fluence, Kangoo, Zoe and Twizy - over 2011 and 2012. BMW, meanwhile, has partnered power company Scottish & Southern Energy, Oxford Brookes University and a host of public-sector bodies to trial the electric Mini E.

General Motors, too, is preparing the ground for the 2012 launch of its extended-range EVs, the Vauxhall Ampera and Chevrolet Volt, while Korean manufacturer Kia recently committed to rolling out an electric version of its Picanto model 'within the next three years'.

Most industry observers agree that car marques will profit from an initial group of particularly willing consumers. These early adopters are the type of people who made the Toyota Prius hybrid car a must-have purchase in the US, where it has the endorsement of the Hollywood A-list. They are most likely to be seduced by the combination of driving the latest technology and being able to boast about their green credentials.

Beyond that clutch of easy pickings, however, the outlook appears more testing. Citing a recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering, which estimates that EV sales will account for only 10% of the total European market by 2020, automotive blogger Gavin Green believes that, for the time being, the products will appeal solely to a narrow group of car buyers.

'I don't think anyone expects petrol car sales to end; it is going to be a very gradual transition,' he says.

'The general feeling is that the future of the industry is electric, and that within five years, most mainstream manufacturers will have EVs, but right now it's mostly for urban dwellers making short journeys, who also happen to have a garage.'

David Jackson, electric vehicle project manager at Nissan, and therefore the man responsible for launching the UK's first mainstream EV, says that, first and foremost, the manufacturer will seek to convince opinion-formers that it is a leader in the field.

However, he believes there is a second band of financially savvy consumers who are ready to be swayed. 'After the early adopters, there is a bigger group of buyers who will weigh up the costs, and are slightly more environmentally minded, who will consider EVs,' he adds.

Renault has unashamedly gone after those consumers who are amenable to the idea of electric cars. Through its recent £2m UK advertising campaign based on the new corporate strapline 'Drive the change', complete with promises of 'zero emissions', the marque attempted to use the forthcoming launch of a range of EVs to position itself as leading the charge for sustainable motoring.

Changing mindsets

The campaign, which fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority for the way in which it calculated CO2 emissions, was supported by a global deal with video-games maker Electronic Arts. Through the tie-up, those playing The Sims 3 are able to purchase and 'drive' virtual versions of the Renault EV range and gain an understanding of how to operate such cars.

However, if manufacturers are to push sales of EVs beyond a few thousand, they will need to do something to change the mindset of more traditional drivers who still prioritise price over ecological concerns.

A recent survey of nearly 1100 motorists, carried out by Eco-Auto Research with market research firm CCB Fastmap, suggests that consumers find the low fuel costs and apparent reliability of EVs far more likely to inspire a purchase than lower emissions, which is the third-most cited motivation. Even more of a concern to the manufacturers will be the near-40% of respondents who claim they will 'never' own an EV.

Jim Campbell, a former marketing director at Land Rover, Hyundai and the RAC, and now managing director of consultancy Sutherland Campbell and Eco-Auto Research, believes that consumers are lagging far behind manufacturers when it comes to an awareness of sustainability issues.

'I think that the whole environmental theme will catch up, and that it is part of the whole decision-making process, but at the moment consumers are more complex,' he says. 'They are playing catch-up, so it is important (manufacturers) try a different tack in marketing.'

One of the most potent arguments in favour of EVs is the amount consumers will save in fuel costs and tax breaks. As part of the Labour government's £250m low-carbon transport investment programme, drivers are offered subsidies of up to £5000 when buying an electric or hybrid vehicle. Excise duty on EVs is also waived.

Cost criteria

In the case of Nissan's Leaf, with the government grant it will cost just over £23,000, while the vehicle's running costs will be about 20% of those of a regular petrol car; it will cost about £2 to 'fill the tank'.

Car makers also hope that cynical consumers will be won over once they have taken an EV for a drive for the first time. Automotive experts have been pleasantly surprised by the driving experience provided by such cars, with many noting how agile the vehicles can be, as well as the fact that they can accelerate more rapidly than petrol equivalents.

Automotive industry body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders is pushing marketers to get as many consumers as possible to test-drive EVs. 'For the market to grow, consumers will need to embrace new technology and nothing works better than experiential marketing to achieve this, particularly among the younger, technology savvy generation,' says the organisation's spokeswoman, Kate Hudson.

'Having driven an EV, the benefits and opportunities associated with them become easier for consumers to understand and therefore the uptake is likely to gather pace,' she adds.

Some brands have already opted to follow this route, with Nissan signing a three-year deal with The O2 to host a 'brand centre' at the London venue. Nissan GB managing director Paul Willcox says the centre will become the hub of all marketing for the Leaf; the aim is to create a group of advocates for Nissan EVs.

Wieden & Kennedy's Conaway believes EVs may one day enjoy the same emotional pull as traditional options. 'Buying a car is one of the biggest emotional purchases you will ever make, outside of buying a house,' he says.

'Even 10 to 15 years ago, people would mention in the pub if they had bought a car that ran on unleaded petrol - it was the big, new thing. In the future, EVs will attract that kind of attention,' adds Conaway. He also points to Honda's CRZ sports coupe hybrid as an example of how new car technologies will become more aspirational over time.

The most pessimistic of forecasts for the growth of the EV market seem to forget the relish with which British consumers have lapped up innovations such as MP3 players and smartphones. There is, of course, a need to quell anxiety about aspects such as battery life, but any marketing must make that all-important emotional pull.

In the case of the early adopters, marques like Renault are probably correct to dwell on environmental concerns. Yet something more exciting is afoot in the form of a revolution of the automotive industry - something that most drivers are far more likely to want to engage with.

If marketers get the message right, the growth in the number of electric cars on UK roads could outstrip even the most optimistic predictions.

CASE STUDY - RENAULT AND THE SIMS 3

To target younger customers, Renault has opted to 'launch' its forthcoming Zero Emission (Z.E) EV range through a partnership with Electronic Arts, maker of virtual reality game The Sims.

The global deal, negotiated by Fuse International, allows gamers to download an 'Electric Vehicle Pack', comprising various environmentally friendly items, including the Renault EV and solar panels for their simulated homes.

Starting with the Twizy Z.E. concept car, players will be able to use Renault's EVs to drive around in the game, and must charge the cars overnight as one would in real life.

'Electric vehicles will appeal to younger, more socially conscious customers and especially early adopters. This is the heartland of The Sims 3 community,' says Stephen Norman, senior vice-president of global marketing at Renault, who is leading the project.

Renault UK's head of electric vehicle project, Andy Heiron, agrees that digital media will prove crucial. 'With EVs, the internet will be more important than above-the-line communications, as that is where people are going to do their research,' he says. 'After all, how much information can you get across in a 30-second TV ad?'

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