IIn 2011, a satirical commercial asked viewers a hypothetical question: “What if everything was on gas?”
The ad for the electric-powered Nissan Leaf imagined a world where alarm clocks, coffee markers, microwaves, and even dentists’ drills all contained combustible motors instead of wires and sockets. Now, a decade later, car brands are collectively asking: What if all cars were electric?
Using high-profile managers and celebrities, new showrooms, and advertising business, car brands are evolving how they market electric vehicles (EVs) to reach more mainstream audiences. But will the strategies fuel a more permanent transformation?
Big companies and startups alike are rolling out a host of new strategies to go along with their new cars, new batteries and new sustainability commitments in hopes of making electric vehicles the standard in the next decade. General Motors aired a Super Bowl ad with an all-star cast. Ford hired a famous manager for the Tokyo Olympics. Mercedes-Benz and startup Lucid have opened new showrooms in New York City to educate the market. Hyundai EV ads run by the Spider-Man Championship.
Electric cars are already poised to be in focus again this year. Later this week at the Consumer Electronics Show 2022 in Las Vegas, General Motors and BMW will unveil new electric vehicles. In February, Nissan will air its first Super Bowl ad since 2015 to promote the Ariya crossover and Z Sports Coupe. Later this year, Mercedes-Benz is also planning a major partnership with the upcoming movie, Avatar 2.
“You know, they don’t live off the ground in this chain,” said Monique Harrison, Head of Brand Mercedes-Benz USA. Forbes in October. “They won’t live on Earth in any future, so don’t expect them to drive EQS down Fifth Avenue, but the chain’s innovation and positioning is perfect for talking about an EQ product and what it can offer here on Earth.”
Car brands are increasingly marketing to people interested in performance and luxury, going beyond marketing specific models to presenting companies themselves as innovators in the electric vehicle space. Experts say they’re also more open to buying new vehicles or technology sooner than in the past — painting a picture of skeptical buyers about an electrically charged future.
said Jeffrey Osborne, an analyst at Cowen Securities who covers sustainability and mobility. “Tesla has shown that marketing to the masses works.”
The 2021 EV hype started early in the year when General Motors unveiled a new branding for the company to demonstrate the focus on electrification. That same week, a new campaign titled “Everybody In” debuted starring writer Malcolm Gladwell, famed Peloton coach Cody Rigsby and surfer Bethany Hamilton. Then in February, General Motors — which plans to bring 30 electric vehicles to market by 2025 — aired a Super Bowl ad starring Will Ferrell, Kenan Thompson and Awkwafina to promote its Lyriq crossover, followed by a separate collaboration with Disney on a Chevy Bolt featuring classic characters From Star Wars, Dumbo and Peter Pan.
“You can’t be more mainstream than Disney,” said Deborah Wahl, GM’s chief marketing officer. Forbes In an interview last March. “And that was really intended to change the idea that electric vehicles are only for a small segment of the population who are really concerned about climate change to show how ideal these vehicles are for families, for road trip driving, and for all kinds of use.”
GM has sought to strike a balance between the timing of advertising investments and the potential for market penetration, according to Wall. This includes capturing people’s feelings while also educating them about electric cars.
During the Tokyo Olympics last summer, Ford released a new ad directed by Chloe Chow, who is known for writing and directing successful films such as Bedouin And eternity. Zhao’s direction of commercial advertising helps the formerly niche electric vehicle segment feel more attractive and connected with mainstream audiences, said Alex Tothman, director of strategy at Wieden + Kennedy who works on Ford’s EV advertising.
“I think she’s known for incredibly capturing human characters and bringing emotion, depth, and character to all kinds of Americans,” she said.
EV ads are new, but very old too
The marketing of electric cars dates back to the first EVs centuries ago. In 1899, an advertisement for Baker Motor Vehicle Co described the early electric vehicle as “the electric that fulfilled all the needs of the women of society.” A decade later, Hupp-Yeats and Baker had been running EV ads for years in the popular weekly magazine, Literary summary. According to the US Department of Energy, about a third of all vehicles on US roads were electric by the turn of the century before it almost completely disappeared in the 1920s and 1930s after the discovery of cheap crude oil in Texas. Interest in electric vehicles then gained momentum again in the 1970s when General Motors produced a prototype for an urban electric vehicle, followed by the success of Sebring Vanguard with CitiCar and its 50- to 60-mile EV range. However, by the end of the decade, limited performance and limited range once again dented demand.
Compared to MediaRadar’s estimate of $2.9 billion spent on all car advertising during the first half of 2021, money for electric vehicles is still small: Spending on electric vehicle advertising mostly disappeared in 2020, but reached $33 million between January and July 2021. This is a 69% increase over the $19.5 million spent in 2019.
Electric cars shown on TV are also developing. While Nissan had the most unique TV commercials for electric cars in 2019, Jaguar briefly surpassed them in early 2020, according to data from iSpot. By May 2021, Audi had the most featured ads with a total of 21 ads, followed by Ford, Nissan, GMC and Chevrolet with 14 ads each. A separate report from MediaRadar found that Volkswagen ID.4, Lucid Air, Chevrolet’s EV, BMW ix and Nissan Leaf spent more on paid advertising in the first half of 2021.
“It looks to me on the outside like they might be saying ‘let’s stop holding on to the past and jump with both feet into the future,'” said Megan Busey, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Startups and giants alike are the spenders
EV startups are also boosting their marketing efforts. Polestar, which was eyeing an initial public offering in the near future, hired Silicon Valley design and technology agency YML to overhaul its digital presence and marketing to American consumers. Before it went public last year, Rivian revealed that marketing and promotion costs were $24 million in 2019 and $5 million in 2020. Although advertising costs were “immaterial,” the company said the spending could be “Much higher and more sustainable” than before Attracting new customers. Lucid, which also went public last year, opened a new showroom in June 2021 in New York City and built mystery funds to promote Lucid Air.
“It’s definitely an accelerating moment for the company,” Jeff Carey, Lucid’s chief marketing officer, said last July. “We’re not just launching the company now. We’re launching the brand, the business and our first products simultaneously over the course of this year…it fits the moment we’re in as well because a lot of the companies going public now aren’t just financial stories — they’re also cultural moments.”
Automotive executives credit Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk for helping fuel new interest in the category. (Kantar ranked the company as the Most Valuable Auto Brand of 2021.) While Tesla has a reputation for not being a big advertiser, companies including Ford, Volkswagen, Audi and Lucid all began advertising on Saturday Night Live in May when it was Musk was the guest host.
In addition to TV advertising, Volkswagen and others are also increasing their investments in digital marketing to find new customers and transform the buying process. (Following the SNL announcement, Volkswagen saw Internet searches for ID4 immediately increase by 800%.) In addition to campaigns such as the 2019 “Now You Can” ad, Volkswagen developed a new brand design that was launched in China and then globally. It has also overhauled dozens of digital channels and other online owned platforms. In the coming years, the company plans to pool its marketing engagement and media investment in green technologies to between 60% and 80%.
“I think we are now in the third epic period for Volkswagen,” said Jochen Singbel, head of marketing at Volkswagen Global. Forbes last year. “In the ’50s and ’60s, we democratized mobility for everyone. In the ’80s, ’90s, and ‘2000s, we democratized premium and luxury technologies for everyone. Now, over the coming years, I think the important thing for us is that we want to create electrification for everyone. And make it available — and not just to a few.”
The efforts were not without turns. The day before April Fools’ Day, Volkswagen claimed it had changed its name to “Voltswagen” to clarify its electric priorities and then claimed it was a joke – but not until after several major media outlets published stories describing the name change as real news. A number of electric car brands have recently faced more serious controversy: Several electric car startups are facing federal investigations into potentially misleading investors, and General Motors has issued recalls to replace batteries in more than 100,000 Chevy Bolt vehicles over fire fears.
New ads for new buyers
Despite all the hype, electric vehicles are still a fraction of the cars on the road. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in June, electric vehicles have accounted for just 2% of the new car market over the past three years. From 2018 to 2020, the total number of electric vehicles sold fell 3.2%, with electric vehicles accounting for just 2% of the US new car market in each of the three years.
This low number may change soon. An October survey of 33,000 US drivers conducted by YouGov and Forbes found that 22.9% would consider buying a new or used electric vehicle while 65% agreed that electric vehicles “are the future of the auto industry.” When asked why the switch was made, the top three included protecting the environment, saving money on taxes and maintenance, and reducing fuel costs.
With dozens of electric vehicles debuting in the next few years, Ford is focusing on electric versions of popular nameplates like the Mustang and Lightning F-150. So far, it appears to be working: The company previously expected to sell 50,000 Mustang Mach-Es in its first year, but recently announced plans to sell 200,000 by 2023.
“We’re betting on our most iconic and unique cars,” said Mark Truby, Ford’s chief communications officer. “I guess you can argue with that [with] The uniqueness and novelty of electric cars, we’ll look back and say, ‘Remember when it was crazy when we saw an EV?’ Now they are everywhere. “
Brands like Ford and Hyundai are using augmented reality to interact with potential customers online. To promote electric vehicles and hybrid models like the Santa Fe HEV and Ioniq 5, Hyundai partnered with National Geographic last spring on a series of augmented reality filters on Instagram that allow people to explore several national parks virtually or to enhance their personal experience if that happens. To be in Zion, the Great Smoky Mountains or Yosemite.
“We originally said we would practice digital activation of Ioniq, for example,” said Angela Zapeda, CMO at Hyundai. “But the car is the aura for the brand, so now we’re starting to think the Ioniq is more than just a digital car. Which we can use very effectively when we talk to specific consumers.”
Zapeda used to worry about how to market electric vehicles when the current retail inventory volume was still gas-powered. However, now that the company plans to bring 10 EVs to market by the end of the year, the announcements help illustrate the development.
Plus, she said, “You don’t want to be late.”