Is carbon the right reason to get buyers to go electric?

Buyers have many different reasons for choosing a plug-in electric car, and a new marketing campaign seeks to highlight all of them.

David Zalubowski/AP/File
A Chevrolet Volt is plugged into a charging station in Denver (Feb. 8, 2016).

Buyers have many different reasons for choosing a plug-in electric car.

Creating marketing campaigns that address all of them has bedeviled highly-paid professionals for five years.

A new campaign urging North American drivers to make their next car an electric vehicle inadvertently highlights the challenge.

A press release from an enterprise called the 2 Degree Institute (it prefers 2°) landed at the global headquarters of Green Car Reports March 30.

The name refers to scientists' goal of keeping global temperature rise from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius over the next century.

It says the enterprise plans to launch a crowdfunded campaign to raise marketing funds to reach buyers both online and via billboards in major North American cities.

"The campaign aims to garner one million pledges by the end of 2017," it says, "and 10 million by 2020."

Buyers are being asked to "take the Electric Car Pledge to reduce carbon emissions across the continent."

An ambitious goal, certainly, but a seemingly earnest one.

The challenge is that environmental concerns are only one of four or five different purchase motivations for buying a plug-in car.

As described several years ago in research conducted at the University of California at Davis, electric-vehicle buyers include :

  • Early adopters: who want to be the very first to have the latest, greatest, coolest tech, which for cars 10 years ago was a hybrid, but is now an electric;
  • Greens: buyers who view reducing overall global carbon emissions and their personal carbon footprint as important;
  • Energy-security hawks: who want to cut the influence of oil-exporting countries, and reduce the massive cost of sustaining the oil supply (military vets are big here); and
  • The cheap: buyers who build spreadsheets of lifetime ownership costs and conclude that even a pricier electric car saves them money in the long run.

As eloquently described several years ago by Drew David Winter in the industry trade journal Ward's Auto, the association of electric cars with climate change or "green' causes alienates some parts of the political spectrum.

It's worth remembering that three of every 10 U.S. citizens surveyed do not accept the scientific consensus that manmade carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution began are contributing to climate change, according to a recent Monmouth University poll.

And as electric-car advocates know, essentially none of the two dozen or so plug-in cars now on sale have been marketed as a smoother, quieter, torquier, better way to drive.

Cracking the code on how to interest mass-market consumers in plug-in cars may require their ranges to rise and their prices to come down still further.

The Tesla Model 3 electric car being unveiled today, and the Chevrolet Bolt EV that will go on sale within a year, both promise 200 miles of range at prices of $35,000 and $37,500 respectively.

How those cars are marketed—early signs from Chevy are mixed—and how much "green" is in the mix may set a tone for the second wave of battery-electric vehicles through 2020.

But cars are an emotional purchase for many buyers; the rational aspects of a vehicle's features and performance are often no more than equal with its looks, brand value, and murky societal messages about the meaning of that vehicle.

Which is to say, we suspect that only a minority of electric-car buyers will sign the pledge.

Most will buy the cars because they like them.

This article first appeared in GreenCarReports.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.