Automakers happy to tell electric car story

Car manufacturers are starting to plan comms for the 2010 rollout of their next-gen vehicles

Automakers are handling myriad issues – changing consumer demand, rising costs, layoffs – but perhaps none as important as convincing its stakeholders that its next-generation, electric cars will take them out of an old, bad-news era and into a brighter, more successful, green-tinged one.

Consumers hit with record gas prices, economic uncertainty, and greater cultural concern for the environment certainly appear to be clamoring for more fuel-efficient models. According to a Morpace Omnibus Study this July, 62% of consumers expect their next vehicle to be smaller or more fuel-efficient than their current one.

The federal government also expects automakers to employ better fuel standards by 2020 in order to meet its stringent Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Just two weeks ago, Congress approved a $25-billion low-interest loan for auto manufacturers to assist with the production of more fuel-efficient vehicles.

“The industry has become focused on answering questions as to what [it is] doing to refine and enhance technology,” says Wade Newton, communications director for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

“It takes 10 to 15 years to take concepts to market, and this is a brutally competitive industry,” Wade adds. “There hasn't been a lot of product communications, yet many automakers feel an obligation to tell part of the story now.”

Chrysler is currently gearing up to promote a full line of electric vehicles, presently unnamed, talking about technology as a way of aligning the company with a positive future.

“With these [advanced technology] vehicles, we're trying to get across several messages, [including] ecology, economy, and hope,” says Rick Deneau, director of product and brand communications at Chrysler. “We want people to feel good about the vehicles they drive, and the plans we have in these regards.”

“It's not a question of the short-term survival of the auto manufacturer,” adds Simon Sproule, corporate VP of global communications at Nissan, which expects to intro-duce an electric vehicle (EV) in the US in 2010. “Yes, there's the issue of a current economic meltdown and prospects for the industry are tough with difficult trading issues, but if you assume this situation is not going to last, people need to be ready for the cars coming up.”

Sproule recently added two global PR team members to focus only on EV communications due to the promotion of these vehicles as part of a long-term business strategy.

Auto manufacturers are also aware of how they're communicating their individual brand in a market that is expected to be flooded with new types of vehicles slated for 2010.

“There's... confusion on the part of the consumer right now,” Sproule says. “We're focusing on the end game, which will be the electric vehicle, through outreach to media; however, a second part is educating consumers.”

At Toyota, a company already known for its hybrids like the Prius and fuel-efficient models, John Hanson, national manager of environmental, safety, and quality communications, notes that the automaker is reaffirming its leadership position in the category. However, it is also beginning to talk about its planned EV models and a plug-in hybrid.

“We had a [media] event in Portland, where we communicated how complex and wide ranging these energy issues are in terms of sustainable mobility,” Hanson says. “We were laying the groundwork for future stories... Consumers will be reached through the media.”

Ron DeFore, principal at Stratacomm, a Fleishman-Hillard firm that currently does work for Chrysler and smart USA, the manufacturer of the smart car, says that consumers will be looking to capabilities in 2010, and automakers will follow their lead.

“2010 is the year the federal fuel economy standards will start... most consumers will be looking at the bottom-line,” DeFore says. “Then, companies will have a battle of minds to win over consumers.”

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