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By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

November 5, 2020 | 11 min read

The auto industry is transitioning from fossil fuels to electricity after 100 years of championing the unchecked freedom granted by the internal combustion engine. Now, marketers face a tough task easing drivers into sustainable hybrid and electric ranges. The Drum tasks the marketers building the category to explain the shift.

Even children know how cars work. They play with the toys, make the vroom-vroom noises and, more often than not, crash spectacularly. There’s a similar collision ahead for the manufacturers with the slowest reactions.

In combusting fossil fuels for mobility, freedom has extracted its toll from the planet. Around a third of US air pollution comes from vehicles. Auto manufacturers are wrestling with the implications of the climate disaster and are racing to futureproof the car ahead of government bans on heavy pollutants, naturally.

The products are complex. The simplest, the wholly electric cars, have no internal combustion engine (ICE). They are charged like an iPhone, at home or at charging stations.

Then there are two types of hybrids. These slowly transition ICE drivers/users and let manufacturers use-up warehouses of soon-to-be inert parts.

Self-charging hybrids (hybrid electric vehicle, or HEVs for short) have an ICE and an electric battery. Fuel kickstarts the motion, which charges the battery, which can later take the lead. They function clean during short distance, low-speed commutes and school runs. Some drivers buy them for the tax breaks and exclusively use the ICE. How they are used determines whether they are actually clean vehicles.

Then there are plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). They’re similar but can use charging points, which means clean energy for greater distances.

Auto marketers generally don’t have the benefit of a few paragraphs to explain these differences. Here’s what they do instead when selling them.

The&Partnership: Toyota creative agency

Simon Ringshall is a planning partner at The&Partnership on the Toyota creative account. He urges marketers to think audience-first. Cars are mainstream, EVs and hybrids are not.

“Not everyone is open to buying one. Identify those who are open to trying new technologies, who are more progressively minded, more affluent, more city-centric.”

These individuals have different needs and preferences, he says. “There are myriad motivations and barriers – social, emotional, functional – which differ by audience cohort. It’s not enough to have one singular advertising idea and to stop there. Instead, you need a creative platform that is sufficiently flexible.”

More often than not, the creative around EVs assuages fears or concerns, from range anxiety to pricing to performance. You then need to understand the customer journey. We know early adopters are willing to research their purchase, so it’s important for materials to guide them. And as a relatively young sector, marketers are still testing and learning the creative. There are generally a lot of assets that go into a feedback loop, which helps find the winning formula.

Ringshall urges for simple language, making the vehicles easy to test (how many potential buyers have driven one?), avoiding comparisons with ICEs and, most importantly, cultivating existing customers. Toyota, as one of the earliest entrants into the hybrid sector (the Prius debuted in the US 20 years ago) can cross-sell or transition fans to new models. Most of its core model sales in the west are already hybrids. But it needs to prepare for the niche to become the mainstream. And that’s happening. In France in September, new car sales of hybrids/PHEVs/EV tripled year-on-year. In Norway, 75% of new car sales were PHEV.

Financial incentive and regulations inspired this journey. Incentives to invest in green sources, such as grants and sometimes a pass from road tax, aided it. Now, advertising will be a kingmaker for the autos.

Ringshall says: “Advertising is one weak force in a much greater system of forces that can quickly reshape consumer behaviour and the entire category.”

He helped launch the Toyota Corolla, a fourth-generation hybrid replacing the Auris. Its ’Move Forward’ campaign evoked simple but evocative imagery of technological advancement.

Ringshall warns that creative can’t fall into the trap of explaining how hybrids work, pointing out that no one ever bothered to explain the ICE and cars still sold pretty well.

Foxtrot Papa: auto content agency

Ryan McNamara is managing director of content and experience agency Foxtrot Papa. It has worked exclusively with auto brands since 2003 and has helped Ford and Jaguar create content to launch electric vehicles.

He knows the sector has a huge education task on its hands. Fear and reservations exist in the absence of knowledge, and this favours the incumbents.

McNamara reminds us that the product is a car. ”So sell a car. Focus on the things that people actually care about. Address consumer needs. Almost ignore the fact it is electric – we all know they are better for the environment now.”

His role is to showcase “their fun, their performance, how they are inexpensive to run and are hugely good for the environment”. Explainers can later address the common questions around how they operate and help to guide potential customers through the ecosystem. They usually self-identify what they need before they choose a brand.

“Usually you’d be doing brand awareness right at the top of the funnel and then working out what someone’s interested in. It is starting to flip – you do an educational piece at the top to work out what the individual is interested in and then supply them if you can.”

This presents a “massive opportunity” for a European brand. The one with the best educational piece and story can be the Tesla of Europe. But unlike Tesla, the major players in sustainable mobility have legacy ICE businesses. They must grow the sector without cannibalizing their existing sales.

McNamara concludes: “They are gung-ho for electric now. But equally, they have to sell the huge backlog of ICE vehicles. They tread a fine line between saying ’electric is the future, it’s all you should buy’, and saying ’you shouldn’t buy ICE any more’. That’d be disastrous for them.“

FCB Inferno: BMW’s agency

Ben Jaffé, is head of strategy at FCB Inferno, he works with BMW. And to become acclimatised to the product, the team simply drove them for a few weeks.

He finds: “Beyond the obvious stuff like the environmental benefits, the relative quiet of an electric engine and differences in charging and refuelling, you need to experience the amazing acceleration of a linear motor and cost savings it yields.”

BMW’s built on 'a joy of driving' platform and it needs to show that EVs are no compromise but an evolution. “Now is the time to evolve the language of driving pleasure," he says.

Whether it is trying to convey to new touch and feel of driving, celebrating the new i8 supercar, or enlisting Hans Zimmer to explore the new soundscape of EVs, or working with Waze to make charging points more identifiable, there’s a multipronged approach to building this new foundation.

But right now, Jaffé admits that there isn’t an electric car for everyone. “As electric technologies advance and range increases, people’s needs will increasingly be able to be met by an electrified vehicle. But right now, the ICE may be the right choice based on what people need from their car. A customer-centric approach, therefore, needs to be two-fold. Firstly, we have to be able to identify and act on data signals that indicate that an electrified vehicle might be the right choice for someone.” More people are considering.

Jaffé highlights that 52% of consumers plan to buy an electrified car next according to the SMMT. Many have some confusion ahead. Imagine trying to navigate EVs, BEVs, PHEVs, and HEVs for the first time. “Focus on simplicity and clarity”.

He has worked on a series of films for BMW’s plug-in hybrid range. When on electric energy, the cars glow with ethereal light, when on petrol, the light fades. ‘Sometimes electric. Always BMW’ highlights the new tech, and the brand heritage, in a single stroke.

Electroheads: green mobility publisher

Dan Gregson, the co-founder and group chief strategy officer of green mobility publisher Electroheads and a former colleague of McNamara at Foxtrot Papa, comes at the market from a different angle. He’s bet the house on there being a huge audience of electro-superfans. He knows them better than most.

“We are now over the tipping point. People are now talking about electric cars in the pub. That’s the view I take as an ex-adman.” And from that perspective, it’s not ads that will seize the day but the visibility of the charging infrastructure.

“We’ve not had much evidence of electric cars. Now, every time you go to the supermarket, you see an electric charger and there are more EVs on the road. You’ll hear more conversations and there will be a critical mass of momentum behind the electrification revolution.”

This visibility will be a more “influential media message” than any ad campaign. Semiotically, it’s hard to get the message wrong. The ads, however, are treading on eggshells, as McNamara pointed out. How do you sell the new without demonising the old or diminishing that brand trust?

“For nearly 100 years, the car has been the freedom machine. Electrification in its early stages is anti-freedom – for the first time, we’ve got a car that can’t do exactly what we want. Even though range issues won’t apply to 99% of people, the anxiety still applies.”

Generations of ads have created this mindset that isn’t hugely concerned by how people actually use their vehicles in 2020, it is more about how they think they use their vehicles. But with UK journeys down 80% in lockdown and, more generally, driving as a hobby diminishing, is range really so important?

“For the most part, cars just sit in the driveway,“ says Gregson. “But when it comes to it, people want the choice to drive 200 miles. Sometimes more than anything else. It is a deeply-ingrained behaviour.“

Consumers will have to break habits, as the auto manufacturers have. Post-diesel-gate Volkswagen bet the house on clean energy and in many respects started a drag race. Gregson anecdotally mentions that this hugely influential thrust has seen many electric fans forgive VW for its part in the clean air scandal. From lemons, it will make lemonade.


The subject is bigger than cars, he says. They are but a part in a wider electrification trend that will see green energy adopted. “The car becomes just another battery. The way you manage your overall energy consumption will soon be completely different.”

Tesla, having pushed into batteries, solar energy and auto, has a nice spread across these connected sectors. But rest assured, we’ve many laps to go before we can make out a clear leader in this category.

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