Selling Electric Cars, Hybrids: Does Saving Green Matter More Than Going Green?

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Nissan Leaf 'polar bear' ad

Nissan Leaf 'polar bear' ad

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Electric cars might have plenty of environmental benefits over their combustion cousins, carmakers are finding that angle a hard one to benefit from.

In fact, it's much more likely modern electric cars will be sold on the back of plain, simple cost savings, says Bloomberg.

It presents an unusual contrast with the advertising for cars like the hybrid Toyota Prius, which--despite using gasoline, where electric vehicles don't--has done quite well off the back of environmental marketing.

So why are electric automakers like Tesla, GM and Nissan pushing the economic benefits over environmental ones?

It wasn't always this way. Think back into the near past and you might remember Nissan's near-unwatchable polar bear-hugging ads. The company's early marketing put an emphasis on how much Mother Nature loved you for picking a Leaf.

That's all very well, but Mother Nature's endorsement has hardly seen Leafs flying out of the showroom.

With the latest 2013 Leaf, Nissan is planning a new range of commercials "with more practical messaging". The environmental benefits are implied, but the financial ones will stark--building on last year's $199 per month leasing deals.

"We’re focusing on the value and economic equation of having an EV" said Erik Gottfried, director of sales and marketing for the Leaf, in a recent interview, "...[and] what impact that would have on your household budget."

GM too has tried to push the Chevy Volt's day-to-day benefits--like the savings from plugging in and doing your commute on electricity--rather than its eco-credentials.

Compare that with the Toyota Prius.

2010 Toyota Prius

2010 Toyota Prius

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While no longer current, Toyota's 'Harmony' adverts for the Prius caused a stir back in 2009, a combination of live action and hippy-trippy computer graphics heavily playing on the car's environmental credentials.

And while the Prius offers very real financial benefits for those who buy the car--50 mpg combined is still better than virtually every other non-plugin--the car is still very much known as an "eco car", first and foremost. By those who love it and hate it.

With electric cars in their relative infancy on the market, and priced comparatively high like many a new product, electric automakers are perhaps having to work harder than their hybrid counterparts did to convince people the technology will save them money in the long run.

Even Tesla Motors is selling cars on the cost-saving benefits, to an extent.

It'd be playing devil's advocate to suggest that the company's alternative approach is exactly why it's possibly the highest-selling electric carmaker out there right now, but clever financing deals certainly make it seem more affordable than its relatively high list prices imply.

That, and it's simply proving to be an attractive product in the segment it's aimed at--with Model S cars actually outselling prestige German equivalents like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

At the lower end of the market companies like Nissan have it much tougher as far as cost-saving competition is concerned, and until pricing is within striking distance of equivalent internal combustion vehicles, environmental friendliness alone is a tough sell.

What do you think of electric car and hybrid marketing? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


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Comments (16)
  1. "Think back into the near past and you might remember Nissan's near-unwatchable polar bear-hugging ads. The company's early marketing put an emphasis on how much Mother Nature loved you for picking a Leaf."

    I loved that advertisement, especially the bear hug at the end.

    You and I must be diametrically opposed personalities: everything you like, I think is horrible; and everything I like, you disagree with.

  2. Heh, perhaps we're just destined to disagree on everything.

    Though that's now a paradox, since I agree with you on that point...

  3. I liked the ad as well but Antony is correct in that the ad's first priority is to provide information since this is a brand new car using newly new but totally misunderstood technology so the "feel good" angle might one feel good but information and relating it to real life was and still is much more critical

  4. it'd be nice if they sold them as performance vehicles as well.
    Have a sport mode and run them against equivalnt sized cars and show
    white zombie and other electric dragsters trashing ferrari's and porsches.

  5. Think BMW has one coming out next year. 0 to 60 under 5 in sport mode, 35 mpg city in eco mode

  6. The Tesla economics is especially compelling in Hawaii. Electricity is 33-35 cents per kWh, and gas is ~5% higher than California. Solar panels producing 50 kWh/day now power the entire house and fuels the Tesla S as well. No lines for gas, and savings of $800/month between the electricity bill and gas.

  7. For most EVs and PHEVs they are not economic. The Leaf now is and several others (I-miev, Smart EV, and maybe the Fiat), however, the price of the Ford vehicles, GM, and toyota (Plug-in)are still too high. So previously, the environmental aspect was the primary sales point. Now, some also can save you money.

  8. I'll disagree about the Volt. Leases are actually much cheaper now, but my lease is $371/month (15K miles annually) and my savings after adding electricity and subtracting reduced fuel usage are about $140 month. It was higher, before gas came down in price, too.

    So that whopping $231/month I'm paying would get me what in the pure ICE world? A Corolla, Civic or Cruze? Even if you add the down payment I made, I'm still paying about $310/month. At that price, who would buy/lease a generic, bland compact car?

    A better comparison for the Volt would be an A4 since it's a far better car than any compact out there, even if the bucket seats limit its ability to appeal to many consumers. The A4 I sold to get my Volt would be about $800/month...

  9. As someone who works in the EV industry, and speaks with the public about EV's almost daily, I think we as an industry have missed the ball by promoting EV's environmentally friendly and cost saving characteristics. Yes, all very practical. But, BORING! Cars are jewelry, we wear them. We all buy cars that express our personality. "Yes, it is a minivan, but it is a red minivan. I love red. Yes, it is a Camry, but it is the Sport edition with alloys and a wing on the trunk. No, I'm not a contractor, but I love my pickup because it is big, and powerful!" In the end, the car we drive has some characteristic, or several, that sez something about the owner. Find those characteristics, and market the heck out of them. That will sell EV's.

  10. The problem is not just in EV advertising. Have you seen the recent car advertisements? They consistently attempt to appeal to a child in all of us, which I personally find utterly insulting and demeaning. The advertisements themselves lack the seriousness and the gravity. If all one is doing are lame, sterile corporate "jokes", who will take them seriously come time to open up the checkbook?

    Also, there is such a gross misunderstanding of the trend shifts in what customers want to buy these days, lack of diesel car choice parity being the most obvious.

    Vehicle manufacturers understanding of market demand, or worse blatant ignoring of demands from customers is doing tremendous damage. The current practices must change!

  11. What a shocker, more whining about the lack of diesels in the U.S. And in your usual logic-challenged manner, you contradict yourself. In your other post, you stated that you loved the Nissan polar bear commercial, yet here, it's suddenly insulting to you that commercials are "childish"?

    Thanks for the intellectual consistency, as in the lack thereof. And we all sympathize with your anger at the lack of diesels with manual transmissions. It's hard to believe that the OEMs don't immediately spend billions on developing that critical 0.2% of the market most are missing.

    Sure the practices must change, lest the manufacturers continue to break profit levels and succeed.

  12. I haven't seen a Leaf ad since the Polar Bear ads. The most vivid Volt ad I remember is an awful one that talked about the car Chevrolet didn't want to build, they had to build.

    So, I'd ask, "What advertising?"

  13. That advertising:

    You may need to watch more TV ;)

  14. EVs will only really work when there is a compelling financial case.

    Take as an example the Riverside resident who can lease a leaf for around 100 USD according to an article your posted recently. So if they have enough room at home why wouldn't they lease one just as an every day run around, as the net cost against using their ICE vehicle will probably be zero.

    Clearly their daily routines would have to fit in with the range and charging opportunities but given it would be a runaround then that would probably be a 95% fit.

    Even the most rabid reactionary (probably not many of those in Riverside) would take pause over this particular economic conundrum.

    It is a sign of the progress being made that we can make an economic case

  15. Unlike all the other Bland 75 mile range Ev's out there. Tesla Model S sells it's self by being a great sport sedan. There is no leaves on the dashboard to grow or fall off or lack luster acceleration because its a glorified golf car. None of this buy me because I am good for the planet and of course No lame idea of having a Polar bear to hug you. Tesla Model S is the only Ev that can actually compete with gasoline sport sedans and beat them at their own game. It's a game changer because it shows how good an electric car really can be.

  16. I spent about $190 in electricity to drive 7300 miles last year. The car is very quiet, fast enough, stops well and is comfortable to drive. The Ipod interface and navigation actually works perfectly, unlike the ones in my last German car I used to own. I never have to stop at a gas station only to have someone ask me for spare change. The looks of my Leaf tell the world that I'm an eccentric hippy type who is looking to change the way we get around. I think only two of those things are true. Hell, maybe they're all true.

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