Selling the Electric Car

“It’s not saving the environment,” groused Rush Limbaugh on The Jay Leno Show last month. The conservative commentator was talking about the electric Ford Focus ST, which he was about to drive for the show’s Green Car Challenge segment. (Celebrity guests are timed racing around an obstacle-laden track behind the soundstage.) Limbaugh’s remark interrupted Leno introducing Ford and noting the benefits the technology has on the environment. But for the automaker, things worked out in the end: Limbaugh finished his drive and pronounced, “I like the electric car.”

Whether Limbaugh relished the ride or just the fact that he ran over Al Gore’s cardboard image (one of the obstacles) not once, but twice, he played his part well in a classic marketing tactic to stimulate consumer interest: the good old-fashioned test drive, in this case one broadcast to a national TV audience.

The segment is “a fun way to get the [electric car] story out there in a mainstream way, and it shows that electric vehicles aren’t wheezing golf carts,” says Toby Barlow, CCO of Ford advertising agency JWT Team Detroit.
The Green Car Challenge is one of the most recent efforts in a nascent advertising category: the all-electric car, a handful of which are currently on the market, and many more of which are being introduced over the next couple of years. New entrants will include Ford’s sedan (planned for 2011), General Motor’s Chevrolet Volt (2010) and Nissan’s Leaf (also planned for 2010). Previously encumbered by battery technology that limited speed and driving range, the electric car market, aided by technical advances, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and heightened consumer concerns over global warming is a segment automakers hope is poised for mass growth.

“You see this enormous momentum, an avalanche of activity to bring electric cars to the market,” says Darryl Siry, the former CMO of Tesla Motors, which has an electric sports car on the market and has plans to roll out a sedan. Siry has spent the last year advising Coda Automotive’s Coda EV, which is launching in 2010.

But with rollouts just around the corner, automakers concede that they and their agencies face a substantial hurdle: changing the consumer perception that electric cars are more trouble than they’re worth. Issues include “range” anxiety — the fear batteries will run out before drivers reach home due to a virtually nonexistent charging infrastructure — to higher price points and the need to learn about the various options in the new category.

“The threat to any new technology is that ‘c’ word: ‘compromise,'” says Mark Turner, chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi in Torrance, Calif., which handles advertising for Toyota, which plans to roll out a plug-in Prius next year. “The U.S. consumer is especially loathe to compromise,” he adds. “It’s not in our DNA. … If I look at the electric vehicles offered in the near future, my gut tells me many consumers may [indeed] view them as a compromise. It’s a functionality and price issue. At the moment, it’s easy to own a car with a conventional gas engine.”

Add to this plummeting auto sales and the assumption that buyers returning to the market will be more cautious than ever, and it’s clear that for electric-car makers, the road ahead is bumpy.

“You’re going to need some significant inflection point to really have the majority of the masses consider an electric car,” says Ed Cotton, director of strategy at Mini agency Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners in Sausalito, Calif. (BMW recently completed a yearlong test of the Mini-E electric car in New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles.) “The catalyst will probably be a gas price of around seven or eight dollars a gallon.”