Brand awareness of electric vehicles is on the rise. So are sales — U.S. battery electric vehicle volume rose 31 percent in 2019, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
With the climate crisis rising up the news agenda worldwide, is this the inflection point to hockey stick growth for EVs? Marketing may be key to answering that question.
To keep up growth, the EV market will need to expand beyond early adopters and into the mainstream of car buyers. For most of them, that will mean advertising, and higher investment in the kind of broad-reach traditional ads (TV, radio, etc.) auto brands have always relied on.
How effective are electric vehicle ads, though? We've seen several examples on TV over the past few years — enough to make early calls about what kind of ads are most effective in building brands for EV manufacturers.
So, it's important to find out how ads make people feel. Marketing effectiveness studies have proved that emotional strategies are twice as likely to lead to profitable growth in the long term (six-plus months) than campaigns that rely on rational messaging. Emotional ads help build and reinforce memory structures in the brain — crucial in a market such as automotive, where the purchase cycle is so long.
That's one reason car ads have a grand tradition of storytelling — think Super Bowl hits such as Volkswagen's "The Force." But they have an equal tradition of ads that go heavy on product features.
The question for EVs wanting to advertise is this: Is the emotional pull of doing something for the planet enough — or are low emissions, vehicle range and wireless charging just a new take on product features?
The early evidence suggests that EV brands do need to think wider than just "eco," whether that's ecology or economics. Saving money and the planet are powerful motivations behind the marketing, but without emotional executions, they barely register with consumers.
Our data shows that the most successful 2019 ads bear that out. Top of the list was an ad for the Chrysler Pacifica, which used Toy Story characters to promote its EV line. Second was an ad for Veloz, a nonprofit EV advocacy group, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger posed as a used-car salesman promoting gas-guzzling vehicles.
Both ads used familiar faces and a dash of humor to make electric cars seem more familiar to audiences. To bring an innovation to the mass market, brands need to mix in a small amount of novelty and surprise with a lot of reassuring familiarity. So by de-emphasising the futuristic element of EVs and going with humor and recognizable stars, Chrysler and Veloz are banking that the new technology will feel less strange and more acceptable.
Other ads, which take a more bombastic or futuristic route, don't perform as well. According to our data, the Chrysler and Veloz ads both achieved the potential for 2 percent brand growth (fewer than 1 percent of ads achieve more than this).
Of the 50 ads for EVs that aired in the U.S. last year, the average potential brand growth was just 0.5 percent. And some brands don't even get to that. Kia's Niro hybrid and electric vehicles went the futurist route with an ad showing Jetsons-style flying cars — it didn't achieve any potential for brand growth. The Nissan Leaf, with an ad showing a driver becoming a gliding high-tech birdwoman, barely scraped 0.5 percent brand growth.
It's a lesson that EV brands will need to learn. Most people aren't sold on the idea of being part of the future; they just want something that will do the job in the here and now.
The job of EV brands in advertising is to stop presenting themselves as part of tomorrow's world and to find a place to be warm, entertaining and human in today's.