MARKET FOCUS <b>Automobiles</b>: The hybrid car�s the star

The tale of hybrid gas-electric cars in the US has been written so far by Japanese manufacturers Honda and Toyota.

The tale of hybrid gas-electric cars in the US has been written so far by Japanese manufacturers Honda and Toyota.

Honda rolled out the first US hybrid, the Insight two-seater, in late 1999, and Toyota followed with its Prius in 2000. But the hybrid landscape is about to get a lot more crowded, and the PR battle for consumer attention is about to intensify. Early hybrid PR was largely educational, focusing on how the cars worked and how they differed from all-electric cars that needed to be plugged in to recharge (hybrids don?t have plugs). The PR that?s coming will look beyond education to focus on performance, gas savings, and environmental issues. Carmakers launching new hybrids will try to carve out a niche ? whether it be hybrid SUVs or pickup trucks ? where it can quickly become the leader (see graphics below). ?It?s going to get as competitive as any other segment,? confirms Joe Tetherow, national field communications manager with Toyota Motors Sales USA. American manufacturers Ford and General Motors are about to move into the hybrid arena. At the same time, pioneers Honda and Toyota are bringing out more hybrids. Nissan is farther off with plans for a hybrid Ultima in the summer of 2006. DaimlerChrysler is also entering the fray, although with a pickup truck aimed primarily at fleet truck buyers, not the general public. The new caravan of hybrids is coming just as consumer interest in such vehicles skyrockets, says Paul Leinberger, global director of the market opportunity center of excellence at NOP World, a research and polling firm. Recent NOP research found that public awareness of hybrids has risen substantially this year. The company found that 73% of the public had heard about hybrids, up 6% from 2003. More significantly, says Leinberger, among the group NOP calls influentials, 84% had a high awareness of hybrids and 47% said they are very interested in buying a hybrid in the next four to five years ? 16 points higher than the response rate in that group last year. ?When it comes to hybrids, it?s a breakthrough year,? Leinberger says. ?We believe we?ve hit the tipping point, and the Prius is probably the driver.? Toyota?s leading role Toyota has received the lion?s share of hybrid media coverage because of its Prius PR. Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of the Green Car Journal, says: ?They?ve clearly devoted the most funds and the most effort to do this; they?re going for a very high profile.? Toyota?s Tetherow says US PR for the Prius began in 1997 with a 16-city media tour of Prius models then only available in Japan. When the Prius launched here in 2000, Toyota PR started a program to educate the public and the media about hybrid technology. In October 2003, it held a six-city tour in which more than 200 journalists were given an opportunity to try the Prius. The automaker also forged an alliance with an environmental group, Global Green, to supply Priuses for celebrities going to the Academy Awards ceremony the past two years, notes Nancy Hubbell, national strategic news manager for Toyota Motor Sales. Celebrities were attracted to the car by its environmental benefits, Hubbell notes. And getting stars in the car broadened the coverage. ?It moves the Prius out of the auto pages and moves the whole idea of hybrid technology into the mainstream,? she says. Toyota?s next move into hybrids will come in the SUV class with a hybrid Highlander and what will be positioned as the first luxury SUV hybrid ? the Lexus RX400H ? coming out late this year. Looking ahead to those efforts, Tetherow says, ?The constant message for us is that hybrid technology isn?t a passing fad; it?s going to be with us for a long time. As hybrids go more mainstream, messages will change. We will position Toyota as a leader.? Rival Honda might dispute that point. As it prepares to introduce a hybrid Accord, ?We will talk about it in the context of Honda?s leadership? in hybrids, says Andy Boyd, manager, PR, with American Honda Motor Company. Boyd gives Toyota credit for its Prius PR efforts, saying ?Toyota really has done a good job from an overall marketing standpoint.? But he says Honda will not go the celebrity endorsement route of Toyota. ?It would be a very unusual thing for us to do,? he says. PR messaging for the new hybrid Accord will focus on performance ? it will be the first hybrid car with a six-cylinder engine ? and fuel economy. Indeed, rising gas prices and growing consumer unease about future gas price trends have been major factors in fueling consumer interest in hybrids, notes NOP?s Leinberger. America joins the party Among US car makers, Ford plans to introduce a hybrid Escape SUV this year and tout it as the most fuel-efficient SUV on the market, says Susan Krusel, truck and SUV public affairs manager for Ford and Lincoln Mercury. Ford CEO Bill Ford Jr. has been talking about environmental issues for years, and environmental groups have used his comments to lambaste Ford for pushing gas-guzzling SUVs they claim harm the environment. ?PR-wise, [the hybrid Escape] is definitely important to Ford,? says Brian Moody, road test editor for Edmunds.com, an auto website. ?I think the Escape will help them.? Says Ford?s Krusel: ?The Escape hybrid is one of the ways Ford is showing its commitment to creating a better world.? Reviewing PR efforts for the new model, she adds that ?our key right now is to get as many media in the vehicle as possible.? Ford began showing the hybrid Escape to reporters at the January Detroit auto show. Working with Ruder Finn, it ran a fuel economy event at the New York auto show in which a hybrid Escape got 38 mpg over 37 hours and 587 miles of driving. (The 2004 non-hybrid Escape gets 25 mpg on highways.) It?s now sending Escapes to nearly 40 cities across the country. The cars will be parked at BP gas stations and consumers will be given $25 free gas cards in local promotions. General Motors has been concentrating its hybrid efforts in the world of buses so far, but next will move into hybrid pickup trucks when it introduces a hybrid Chevy Silverado and a hybrid GMC Sierra in August, notes Matt Kester, assistant manager, hybrid powertrain systems communications at GM. ?The strategy is to concentrate our hybrid strategy on high-fuel-consumption vehicles first,? he explains. Other GM hybrids include a Saturn Vue SUV in 2006 and a Chevy Malibu sedan in 2006. ?We?ve got probably the broadest portfolio of hybrids coming in the industry,? another message GM will use to distinguish itself, Kester notes. GM PR also will talk about how GM hybrid technology benefited from its work with hybrid buses. It?s sold 235 of those to Seattle, with the first 30 delivered in May. It now has 60 hybrid buses on US streets. Like Ford and Honda, GM plans to emphasize that its hybrids will not suffer ? in performance or horsepower ? when compared to their non-hybrid cousins. One of the few criticisms of the first Prius was that it could be a bit pokey on the road. Toyota?s latest Prius has addressed that and gotten favorable reviews for its passing power, but automakers remain concerned consumers won?t consider hybrids if they see them as unable to hold their own with other cars on the road. DaimlerChrysler is taking the narrowest approach to hybrids in the US by making a hybrid RAM pickup truck that it will sell only to truck fleet operators, not consumers. The RAM will be a hybrid using an electric motor and a diesel engine, rather than a gas engine as other hybrids have. The new hybrid RAM won?t be sold through dealers, notes Cole Quinnell, communications manager for engineering, technology and design at the Chrysler division. The PR value of the RAM will be to let the world know Chrysler is keeping up with technology developments. ?It?s a tool for us to use to get the message out about our technology,? says Quinnell. ?We want to get the message out that we have this technology.? So do most major automakers, it seems. Hybrids will be the next PR battleground for carmakers. Toyota and Honda have the lead now; others will be using PR to try to catch and pass them.

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