Previously we’ve posted on automotive fuel efficiency, pointing out that other cars besides hybrids get the highest gas mileage. But hybrids have other advantages not available to conventional fuel-efficient vehicles, including access to high occupancy vehicle (HOV) carpool lanes.
Today’s New York Times tells us that driving a hybrid shows you care about the environment, and showing you care may be more important than what you achieve. But this raises an intriguing question: One hybrids become mainstream, they won’t be different. How will people be able to show they care?
Michellne Maynard writes that Toyota’s Pris sells very well among those who want to show they care about the environment. she poses the question as a riddle, then answers it:
A riddle: Why has the Toyota Prius enjoyed such success, with sales of more than 400,000 in the United States, when most other hybrid models struggle to find buyers?
One answer may be that buyers of the Prius want everyone to know they are driving a hybrid.
The Prius, after all, was built from the ground up as a hybrid, and is sold only as a hybrid. By contrast, the main way to tell that a Honda Civic, Ford Escape or Saturn Vue is a hybrid version is a small badge on the trunk or side panel.
The Prius has become, in a sense, the four-wheel equivalent of those popular rubber “issue bracelets” in yellow and other colors — it shows the world that its owner cares.
In fact, more than half of the Prius buyers surveyed this spring by CNW Marketing Research of Bandon, Ore., said the main reason they purchased their car was that “it makes a statement about me.”
Fuel economy per se is not the point. Apparently, many Pruis buyers want to be seen as good environmental stewards. Market research data say that they want to “make a statement” and the Prius conveys that message. Other vehicles convey messages, too, for the automobile business has always been about marketing. Hummer owners, for example, clearly send a very different message.
But other hybrids don’t send the same message as the Prius because they are too subtle about it:
Mary Gatch of Charleston, S.C., chose the car over a hybrid version of the Toyota Camry after trading in a Lexus sedan.
“I felt like the Camry Hybrid was too subtle for the message I wanted to put out there,” Ms. Gatch said. “I wanted to have the biggest impact that I could, and the Prius puts out a clearer message.”
Unlike the original Prius buyers, who wanted to be first with its innovative technology, the latest owners are far more conscious of foreign oil dependence and global warming, said Doug Coleman, Toyota’s product manager for Prius.
“The Prius allowed you to make a green statement with a car for the first time ever,” said Dan Becker, head of the global warming program at the Sierra Club (and yes, a Prius owner).
Not everyone is a fan of the statement. Some postings on Internet car discussion groups occasionally make dismissive references to “Pious Prius owners.”
As an environmentalist strategy, this approach may well backfire. Key to the success of any message-marketing strategy is that it has to be available only to a select few. A message that has been adopted by the popular culture — or worse, co-opted by it — ceases to be a select message. But environmentalism is about changing the culture — making specific beliefs and patterns of conduct commonplace, and that’s the antithesis of message-marketing.
Once hybrids go mainstream, consumers who want to convey the message that they care (more than others) about the environment will have to find new vehicles (pun intended) with which to send it.
A story that first appeared in the college press claimed that the Prius is not the environmentally friendly vehicle its adherents believe it to be. The issue was the environmental impact of its batteries. Ironically, the story relied on a life cycle cost study by the same market research firm cited by Maynard. The study, which we haven’t reviewed, has several lists.
Top 10, Bottom 10, and Hybrid Energy Efficient Vehicles
|Top Ten||Bottom Ten||Hybrids|
|Source: CNW Marketing Research, Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles From Concept to Disposal; the non-technical report.|
Controversy appears to be limited to life-cycle energy efficiency for hybrids. We’ve seen no criticism suggesting that the vehicles in the top- or bottom-ten lists don’t belong there. So it’s possible that CNW’s life-cycle methodology is wrong or biased against hybrids. It’s also possible that Prius owners who want to send a message have been singularly focused on a subset of environmental impacts and that they’d have made different choices if they had accounted for all environmental effects.