As the national average of gas prices sits at $4 per gallon for the first time, fuel efficiency has become a key messaging point for car manufacturers that recognize a new market that prioritizes cost-effective spending and environmental responsibility.
Where consumers lead, car manufacturers now follow. Although fuel efficiency was always a selling point for some manufacturers, consumers weren't always as tuned in to mpg ratings as they are today, say some PR pros in the industry. What might seem like an about-face in the marketing of smaller cars over trucks is actually a refocus, they add.
Kathleen Hamilton, assistant VP of PR in the automotive practice at Coyne Public Relations, says that in the past, fuel efficiency was often an afterthought for consumers.
"For years, fuel economy was not a top concern among customers in [the] mass market when making a purchasing decision, though [it became] important when [they] got it home," she says. "[Today] PR pros are seeking to guide purchase decisions by emphasizing fuel economy and new technology."
Stuart Schorr, Chrysler's senior manager of sales, motor parts, and dealer communications, agrees.
"Talking about fuel economy is a way of life now, like safety design or performance," he says. "It's critical, [though] everything [now] gets better fuel efficiency than past vehicles."
To promote those new green technologies, such as hybrid and electric models, though, Hamilton says PR needs to take a cautious approach given the current volatility of the marketplace.
"Right now, [fuel prices] can change very quickly," she says. "An issue that can come up with so much promotion of future models is how do you not overload and create cynicism with so many stories about electric cars and so few on the road."
When Chrysler announced its Refuel America Program this May, which offers consumers three years of stable gas prices if they buy certain models, it was met with some initial criticism, including claims of being a gimmick that was ecologically unfriendly. These criticisms were outweighed by consumers whose interest caused Chrysler to extend the incentive program through July 7, Schorr says. He adds that media relations was key to explaining the program's efficacy to consumers.
It's crucial to stay attuned to the news cycle and consumer concerns when crafting communications strategies, echoes Hamilton. "Consumers, of course, started paying so much more attention when it hit their pocketbooks," she says.
GM, for example, said it would gradually diminish its truck production and seek review of its Hummers, though it began promoting fuel efficiency in 2006. (PRWeek, June 9)
Its communications strategy will focus more and more on its small to midsize cars, moving away from its reputation as a big truck manufacturer, according to Tony Cervone, VP for global strategy and integration at GM.
"We have to re-earn our position in cars," he says. "As our truck [production decreases] and we launch more cars and crossovers, the [brand] discussion will shift more toward the newest vehicles [we're producing]."
Companies that have put fuel efficiency at the forefront of their communications for years, such as Honda, say that strategy continues.
"[We put] the [fuel efficiency] message in every product we promote," says Chris Martin, American Honda Motor Co. senior PR administrator. "It may not be [the] number-one selling point in [our] SUV, but we promote [it] all the way through."
Joseph Molina, president of JMPR, which represents Ducati and Bentley among others, says that PR in the luxury auto market focuses on lifestyle rather gas prices, given that luxury cars are not typically the primary vehicle.
"In [the] luxury market, mileage is not the primary issue," he says. "This is an experience being sold." PR, however, must still reflect greater environmental concerns, he adds.
"[Luxury car buyers] have not chosen to back away from [SUVs] on mileage, but due to green issues and social conscious. Nobody wants to be made fun of."