CSRHub Blog Research on ESG metrics and comments on sustainability best practice

The Electric Car Branding Trick Even Nissan's Leaf is Missing

[fa icon="calendar'] Sep 26, 2011 9:46:48 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding

 By Carol Pierson Holding

In the past ten years, environmentally friendly cars have become a fixture in advertising. First came the Prius. Then BMW claimed its electric batteries boost performance, great for boosting the entire BMW brand. Chevy Volt, an electric hybrid, hypes range, innovation and American values, trying to minimize its differences from traditional cars. Nissan Leaf touts its green credentials, scooping up the ultra-green market.

Gallery-7 Leaf’s green strategy is working against the Volt: Leafs are outselling Volts by over four to one. Yet even at that, Nissan only sold 1,362 Leafs in August. By contrast, Toyota sold over 30,000 Camry in the same period. The ultra-green sliver market may soon be sated. What’s next?

So far, electric car marketers have failed to position themselves against the 5 million+ internal combustion engine (ICE) market in any way but green, leaving that task to the press and consumers. And what is the buzz? So far, the biggest story about the electric car is “range anxiety.”

Too many reviews and user stories concentrate on the issue. Is 100 miles enough? When will the recharging stations be up and running? What happens in a bad traffic jam? How long would you have to wait for the special Level 2 Charger permit? Who would ever buy one until all of these issues have been worked out!

That’s why, when I walked into the garage of my uber-practical friend Jane (not her real name) and saw a brand new Nissan Leaf, I was completely shocked. Her former car was a 4-year-old Lexus. The Leaf seemed to be a step down, both in size and luxury. She supports conservation, but not when it interferes with her lifestyle. She spends many weekends at a place 60 miles away, so her 100-mile range wouldn’t cover the round trip. This just didn’t make sense.

When I gave her a doubting look, Jane said “Just drive it.”

Understand, we are not car people. We drive whatever gets us there. Jane’s Lexus was low maintenance and had a great GPS. I bought a used 1998 Volvo Coupe for the low price and great sound system.

But when I drove the Leaf, I felt transformed. Suddenly, I was 10 years old riding my bicycle down a hill without a helmet. Jane turned off the pedestrian-warning beeper and the only noise was the wind and the whine of tires on pavement. I later discovered its design features – light body materials, soft suspension and steering, double insulation, low adhesion tires and the instant acceleration of an electric motor - sort of ET-like, suddenly you’re going a whole lot faster – all contribute to the feeling of floating on a cloud.

Why aren’t the headlines about what a cool experience it is to drive an electric car? It is such a clear differentiation. Sports cars and Harley Davidsons are all about the experience. Sure, the electric car is not for those who would miss the growl of an ICE. But fans wax on about the experience, comparing it to a ride in a corporate jet or praising its quiet peacefulness. One ardent Leaf fan called it “Insanely wonderful” and told me, “It’s the first thing I’m buying when my company goes public.” Michael Carmichael writes in the Huffington Post that its acceleration is “...just like the Starship Enterprise.”

My favorite comment of all, from the Nissan Leaf Forum: “For now I'm just cherishing the boyish wonder that my Leaf is bringing me.  All the cars I owned were a mode of transportation, while the Leaf felt like a toy that I've always wanted.”

Now wouldn’t that make a great commercial?

Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.


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[fa icon="comment"] 5 Comments posted in automobile industry, corporate social responsibility, CSR, electric car, Electric vehicle, Uncategorized, socially responsible investing, sustainability, Carol Pierson Holding, Chevy Volt, corporate responsibility, CSRHub, Nissan Leaf, SRI

Sex, Lies and the Electric Car

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 27, 2011 8:38:06 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding


By Carol Pierson Holding

As though the merging of electric car and the Internet were already a well-known fact, BMW, a leader in CSR among automakers, dared to name its hybrid/electric car brand BMWi. “i”? Sure, thanks to Apple’s ubiquitous advertising campaigns, “i” is as well known as its predecessor “e” for electronic (email, e-commerce), and “x” for one level higher (xBox). Still, you have to wonder why BMW chose consumer shorthand for Internet, for innovation and cool, over eco or green, to signal environmentalism. Or even “e” for “electric car.”

Picture 4
Could BMW be doing what so many have failed to do—move the overall positioning of energy efficiency towards something, well, sustainable? At least when it comes to cars? Green appeal comes and goes. For many efforts, green positioning has given way to saving money — remember Energy Star’s transition in the 1990s? And more recently, the Prius’ push beyond celebrity environmentalists to mass market, cost-conscious consumers? But saving gas only goes so far, especially when gas is cheap.

KC Golden, the visionary behind the Seattle-based Climate Solutions, pretty much predicted an i-car evolution.  KC grew up in Los Angeles, the apex of the automobile worship.  He witnessed what having a cool car –a lot of horsepower under the hood —could do when it came to getting the girl. That link between horsepower and sex is permanently fused in youthful minds. And it never really goes away.

Today, KC lives in Seattle, where the major source of carbon emissions, about 40%, is from cars. To lower emissions, we must either get people to ride public transportation, which in the West is extremely tough, or more practically, get them to drive low-emission cars. What KC sees as the primary challenge is breaking our insistent connection, even in politically correct Seattle, between sex appeal and horsepower.

And what better voice to change attitudes about cars than the car companies themselves, starting just where you’d expect it to start, with Volkswagen—the first small car brand. KC sent me this typically counter-intuitive Volkswagen ad, which mocks drivers who still believe that horsepower enhances ego. Its tag line is “lowest ego emissions:” VW TV Commercial.

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I’ll bet this commercial is not all that funny to BMW drivers. It appeals to those whose ego is wrapped around environmentalism, the very group KC wants to enlarge. I’m not saying that KC is wrong about green being sexy one day. In fact, even BMW thought the time had come in its first and second tries at an electric car. First was the MiniE, an electric MiniCooper. Launched in China, it was positioned as the first of its MegaCityVehicle line— a luxury version of Indian car-maker Tata’s Nano. Then the company tried the ActiveE, a sedan that was “bringing sustainable electric mobility on the road” as their ActiveE spokeperson, a female sustainability consultant intoned on their website. The ActiveE does not look “muscular;” its spokesperson is not sexy.

But with BMW’s third try, the BMWi, I think BMW has found its answer. Even though the tag line for the BMWi is “Born Electric,” the message is about performance first. BMWi uses battery power not only to cut emissions, but also to boost performance. Sure, the women in the BMWi web video are good-looking, but not blatantly sexy. And someday, maybe just the energy savings will be enough.

With the BMWi, BMW returns to its roots. It’s a smart strategy and may take us right where we want to go. As smart branders know, a slow transition works best with consumers. German luxury carmakers promoting behavioral modification in service of sustainability? Now that’s brand evolution.

Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.  

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[fa icon="comment"] 14 Comments posted in ActiveE, Apple, corporate social responsibility, CSR, electric car, electric vehicles, Energy Star, KC Golden, Seattle, Tata Nano, Uncategorized, Volkswagen, xBox, MiniCooper, sustainability, MegaCityVehicle, MiniE, Prius, BMW, BMWi, Carol Pierson Holding, Climate Solutions, CSRHub, eco

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