Thursday, January 13, 2011

"More Car Than Electric"

Electric cars have become all the rage at the 2011 gathering of the Detroit Auto Show. After the Chevrolet Volt was bestowed the honor of 2011's North American Car of the Year award on the convention's opening day, the car's hype surged from zero to 60. The Volt beat out electric rival Nissan Leaf and the Hyundai Sonata. Feeling honored, GM Chief Executive Dan Akerson said that "since development began, we believed the Volt had the potential to transform the automotive industry."

While electric cars may not be the final answer to be saved from petroleum usage, the electric car category certainly looks like it has potential. It's easy to remember the harsh economic reality of paying more than $4 per gallon for gasoline less than three years ago and American motorists reacting by seeking out alternative options like hybrid vehicles or even (gasp!) bicycles.

Assuming the "gas goes up/people seek alternative options" formula still applies, the question becomes: which car brand(s) can build an eco-friendly reputation and realize the categories' full potential?

Winning the 2011 North American Car of the Year would indicate that Chevy has gained the upper hand in this race. Unfortunately, I worry that Chevy might be playing the wrong game. They may have built the better product, but they haven't built the perception of being a leader in this car category.

The Chevrolet brand name is a major problem. Chevrolet stands out in the mind as a classic American brand. In its heyday, they built big steel cars that looked great and endlessly chugged gasoline. In fact, not even two years ago Chevy was running an awesome billboard campaign to reinforce this perception for a powerful and classically American car. Yet now the consumer is supposed to associate Chevy with a small car that can sip gas ever so slightly and still be great.

I doubt that that will happen, especially with the Volt's current positioning strategy: "More Car Than Electric." That positioning hardly screams out "Chevy is a small, fuel-efficient car." Instead, Chevy is attempting the impossible task of fighting deep-rooted perceptions, specifically that small (and electric) cars are not powerful. For consumers, small and powerful are conflicting qualities in a car. Any consumer making judgments on vehicle horsepower or toughness will make a strong determination without even hearing so much as the sound of an engine. A simple eyeball test will tell them that a Chevy Volt is not "more car" than the significantly larger vehicle it's parked next to. Trying to convince the American consumers otherwise is an exercise in futility.

Instead, the Volt's positioning strategy should convey the principle reason for owning the car: the substantial cost savings that accrue with long-term ownership. That's what the Volt does best, and the reason someone would buy one—not a smooth, quiet ride, a luxurious interior, a spacious cabin and trunk, turbo speeds, or superb handling.

The best part is this position strategy can be proven with fact. Picture an ad that compares the yearly fuel costs between a Chevy Volt owner with a high MPG and the owner of another car. They both drive 15,000 miles and fill up at $3.50 per gallon. Then $3.75. Then $4.00. Then $5.00. I think that would convince some folks.

Still, there are a lot of people who are already convinced; they consider the cost efficiency of their car a priority. And I think it's a safe assumption that this population will steadily grow along with the price of oil. The Chevy Volt was made for these people; it's just too bad it's not marketed to them.

This post also appeared on Talent Zoo Media's Beneath the Brand blog.

Special Extra Credit Reading: Branding Strategist Jonathan Salem Baskin discusses the flimsy social media tactics electric car marketers are using to get the new category off the ground. Very insightful and I highly recommend reading all of Mr. Baskin's branding insights.

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