LOS ANGELES — Toyota, which introduced the world to gasoline-electric hybrids some 15 years ago, is exploring some new branding language for its alternative powertrains to better convey the nuances of the technologies and the vehicles' evolving driving dynamics.
In the time before Tesla and the Chevy Volt, "hybrid" was the very definition of cutting-edge technology and leadership in fuel economy. And Toyota still has a great deal of brand power vested in the term, which adorns several of its car and crossover models on both the Toyota and Lexus sides. Toyota has committed to making hybrid or electrified options available across its lineup.
But since the dawn of hybrid technology, the word itself has become "diluted," said Ed Laukes, marketing chief for Toyota Motor North America, referring to the wide range of vehicles called hybrids and other varied applications of electrification.
"There have been so many variants of hybrids: our version of what we refer to as hybrid technology versus something maybe you saw from General Motors or something you saw from Ford," Laukes said on the sidelines of the Los Angeles Auto Show, where Toyota introduced a Corolla Hybrid and an all-wheel-drive variant of its signature Prius hybrid line. "Those variants have confused the consumer, ultimately. They don't even know what hybrid actually even means."
And that means vague phrases such as Hybrid Synergy Drive, the brand signature Toyota has used since the early 2000s to mark Toyota and Lexus hybrid models, "could go away over time," Laukes said.
"We're still a long ways away from making that decision of how that's going to happen," he said. "But we have to figure out a way to be able to amplify the messaging around all these different powertrains."
Even for an experienced company like Toyota, describing and marketing hybrids has been a challenge. Toyota had to spend many years disabusing consumers of the notion that the Prius had to be plugged in to charge its battery, only to have the advent of plug-in hybrids muddle that message. Toyota was soon part of that market, too, with the Prius Prime.
Laukes said confusion surrounding "hybrid" will only increase with the emergence of more hybrid applications, all-electrified nameplates and plug-in vehicles, plus Toyota's fuel cell electric car, the hydrogen-fueled Mirai.
"Around that whole umbrella of alternative powertrains, we are looking at a way" to cut through that confusion, he said. "There could be potentially some name in the future that could represent multiple alternative powertrains."
Sam De La Garza, marketing chief for Toyota's small cars, said turbocharging technology went through a similar phase of struggling against consumer assumptions and confusion before automakers figured out ways to brand it more clearly.
With hybrids, he said, "We've got to call it what it is and start investigating where it's going to go in the future."
That may mean introducing a new name that communicates the nuances better, he said, or figuring out how to train staff and dealers to better educate consumers.
Toyota also is having to adjust its messaging to account for hybrids' changing driving dynamics. For driving enthusiasts, the term "hybrid" long signified compromise in the service of fuel economy, rather than any kind of synergy.
But the new global platform underpinning the Prius, as well as the Corolla, Camry and Avalon hybrids, allows for more spirited driving. That gives Toyota marketers an opportunity to reframe the choice between hybrids and conventional vehicles outside the strict fuel economy context, especially in a time of moderate gasoline prices. In the case of the redesigned RAV4, for example, Toyota is offering the hybrid on the most sporty XSE trim.
"Doing those kinds of things over time should help us, should help the industry, evolve the image of a hybrid being something like a Prius as opposed to really a great optional drivetrain that adds some coolness, some sexiness, better driving, more than just an efficient way to get around," said Bill Fay, senior vice president of automotive operations at Toyota North America.