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Hybrid wave raises marketing questions

Infiniti has a plan to expand its hybrid vehicle offerings. Its mass-market sister brand, Nissan, is following suit. Pictured is the QX60.

The wraps came off of the 2014 Infiniti QX60 Hybrid Wednesday afternoon in New York, and the model signals a clear new path for the luxury brand. There will be hybrid powertrain options for almost every new model Infiniti introduces.

But there will also be new marketing challenges -- not just for Infiniti, or for the rest of Nissan Motor Co., but across the auto industry.

Infiniti has a plan to expand its hybrid vehicle offerings. Its mass-market sister brand, Nissan, is following suit, and so will other automakers in coming years. Subaru unveiled its first hybrid today, the XV Crosstek Hybrid.

But selling a hybrid vehicle is not the same as selling a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle.

Hybrids are a purchasing statement made by consumers who specifically want a hybrid.

They are environmentally leaning consumers, or they are financially focused shoppers, who have the wherewithal to compute how much money they might save on gasoline over the life of their vehicle by obtaining an additional 5 or 10 miles per gallon fuel in efficiency at various fuel price points.

Those are specific shopping issues that will rise in importance over the next few years as the number of competing hybrid models grows.

As a result, hybrid customers will require a separate piece of auto companies' advertising dollars to find them and bring them in.

It will not be a simple matter of tacking messages on to the end of existing TV campaigns to say, "Oh yeah, and it's also available as a hybrid."

These consumers will require their own sales pitches, and maybe even their own slice of dealership resources to train sales teams to handle tire-kickers correctly.

Just as many retailers are still struggling to master those customers who prefer to conduct business by e-mails and phone texts, dealers likely will encounter more hybrid customers who ask different questions, have different sensibilities about their purchases and expect different experiences.

Brands such as Infiniti or Nissan or Subaru or Chevrolet are going to be asking hybrid customers to pay thousands of dollars more to take delivery of what they want.

It is not merely an upgrade, like choosing the leather seats and navi package. Buying a hybrid is a lifestyle statement for the consumer. It's a declaration of customer psychographics.

The industry is creating a bold new product initiative to win those shoppers. It had better step up to the plate on learning how to talk to them.

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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