New marketing tactics from GM on Chevy Volt, Bolt

GM intends to use much more targeted marketing methods, messages, and channels to reach people it knows will love both vehicles.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File
A 2012 Chevy Volt electric car is seen at the sixth annual Alternative Transportation Expo and Conference (AltCar) in Santa Monica, California (September 29, 2011).

Hybrids are pretty well-known at this point, and battery-electric cars are conceptually simple: You plug them in like a mobile phone.

But explaining plug-in hybrids to car buyers at large—it's a hybrid, but it also plugs in, but only for double-digit range—has proven to be very hard.

As GM starts to sell its 2017 Volt nationally, and prepares for the debut of its 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV at the end of the year, marketing will be absolutely key.

At last week's New York Auto Show, we sat down for a brief chat with Darin Gesse, who's responsible for marketing both the Volt plug-in hybrid and the Bolt EV electric car.

We asked how and where Chevy plans to explain, introduce, market, and promote both cars as it expands its plug-in vehicle lineup.

The top line, Gesse said, is that the carmaker will use much more targeted marketing methods, messages, and channels to find buyers similar to those who it knows have already purchased the Volt.

Chevy released a couple of national television ads for the Volt under the umbrella of the current "Shattering Preconceptions" Chevrolet campaign, but "our customers don't really watch TV," Gesse said.

They have a greater focus on digital and technology coverage, he said, noting that some of Chevy's media buys included ads on the Wired website, a back cover of Scientific American, and billboards where California tech-industry drivers are likely to be stuck in traffic.

Given the generally informed buyers—Gesse admitted that Volt buyers usually know more than the salespeople they talk to—the goal is simply to spread awareness of the car's capabilities: 53 miles of all-electric range, 420 miles of total range, and an average of 1,000 miles between fill-ups.

As for the Bolt EV, Chevy will similarly focus on its range and price: 200 miles for $30,000.

Pressed on the planned use of net pricing, Gesse acknowledged "there will be an asterisk" next to that number—which, in reality, buyers only realize when they file their taxes for the year in which they purchase the vehicle. (Lessees see their payments reduced immediately, however.)

Regarding dealers, Chevrolet will only offer the car to those dealers who have willingly signed up to be certified to sell plug-in cars.

And the company is looking for best practices from its highest-volume Volt dealers, Gesse said.

It's videotaping those dealers' best salespeople and distributing the interactions to help other dealers understand that selling a plug-in car is "a discussion, not a sales process."

"These are not typical Chevy customers," he noted, and they come in with questions only about relatively minor details about the car after learning about it and researching the basics elsewhere.

"The best way to explain the Volt is to experience it," he said, so test drives are very important.

Chevy is testing programs that bring the cars to the homes of potential buyers, so they can envision it in their own driveways. It's also encouraging dealers to use Volts as loaner cars.

Gesse said his team is challenged by "hitting the right markets," using "the best research" to narrow down its focus to a regional or even city and neighborhood level. "We won't spend much money" on the car in large, sprawling, farm-state regions, he suggested.

Satisfaction with dealer interactions is a big part of measuring the impact on Volt buyers, Gesse said.

"We know they may not trust dealers," he said, "and get [the bulk of] their product information elsewhere."

As for the upcoming Bolt EV, it will be "a halo car" for the Chevrolet brand just as the Volt has been. Gesse noted that 70 percent of Volt buyers are new to Chevy.

He said his team would gather data about any "sell-on" sales that may ensue to Volt owners who then buy a different and additional Chevy following a "good buying process" with the dealer.

Will Volt owners be used as ambassadors for the car, as Chevy global marketing officer Tim Mahoney suggested almost two years ago?

"We applaud the efforts of Volt owners," Gesse said, and "we give them information when we can" through various websites and the Volt Owners Group on Facebook.

The plans for Volt and Bolt EV marketing "aren't finalized, but are in discussions" now, he said.

And he noted that part of the marketing is the idea that Chevy has "three great electrified products for three different use cases."

That group includes not only the Volt and the upcoming Bolt EV, but also the 2016 Malibu Hybrid now going on sale that uses an adapted Volt powertrain in a mid-size sedan (without a plug).

This article first appeared in GreenCarReports.

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