Hybrids Shift into the Mass Market

April 29, 2007

Part II of an Interview with Bruce Ertmann, Corporate Manager of Consumer Generated Media, Toyota  

Shifting a company’s customer base from early adopters to mass market consumers is one of the key challenges facing green marketers.  Few green companies have been able to expand their niche beyond a core set of customers.  One of the primary reasons is that consumers tend to not like paying price premiums for green products.  Another reason is simply that consumers have not traditionally prioritized “green” as a deciding attribute when making purchase decisions. 

Yet, certain green brands like the Toyota Prius seem to be crossing this “chasm” into the mass market.  Though still in the early stages of their adoption, hybrids have already generated broad appeal with mainstream consumers.  Moreover, the stereotype of hybrid owners as treehuggers is far from the truth: in fact, they are high income, mainstream consumers.   

The results from a recent consumer survey by Topline Strategy Group (“Why People Really Buy Hybrids”, 2007) concur.  Topline found that 73% of Prius owners surveyed acted like mass market consumers (ie, they had a financial incentive to purchase the vehicle such as lower sticker price or operating costs than other choices considered) versus 23% of early adopters who paid a premium over alternative choices to purchase the hybrid.  Moreover, for marketers, Prius owners are an attractive target audience: 71% have household incomes over $100,000, with 28% at $200,000 or more.  

While it is uncertain whether this research is statistically significant (n=118), it is at least directionally representative of what Toyota itself is observing in the market.  Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Bruce Ertmann, Corporate Manager of Consumer Generated Media at Toyota.  We spoke of Toyota’s success in the hybrid market, its target audience and the shift to the mass market consumer.  Here are his words: 

MG: What kind of consumers purchase Prius vehicles? 

BE: When we first launched the Prius, people joked about all of the tree huggers who bought the car.  Yes, we had those diehard owners, passionate people.  But, it truly has become a mainstream vehicle.   

For the longest time, we were undersupplied with the Prius.  [Toyota’s] US president went to bat for us this past summer and was able to get additional production in Japan.  Production came on late last year [followed by a] big sales push in December which most manufacturers have.   

And then in January our Prius sales dropped off significantly.  At the same time, we had all of this new inventory coming into the dealership.  So instead of a six month waiting, list we had inventory at our dealerships – which is frankly normal.  We began to see some of the traditional media ask whether the bloom was off the rose for the Prius and hybrid technology in general. 

But, in February we had a strong sales month.  Just this past weekend, we sold 2,000 Prius vehicles nationwide – a record for us.  So, [March] will be a record sales month. The vehicle continues to be hot and the hybrid technology still seems to be a winner with consumers. 

MG: Are you seeing the same customer shift across all your vehicles? 

BE: Yes, definitely.  We are seeing this with the Camry, our top selling car.  That vehicle as a hybrid version has become very hot.  The demographic is such that the more mainstream Camry buyers interested in a hybrid version found the premium to be tolerable.  

Right now, our belief is that integrating hybrid technology into more of our vehicles is the smart thing to do.   

MG:  How have you evolved your marketing as your audience shifts?  

BE: We have changed our marketing approach to push it towards a more mainstream audience.  We pulled all of our Prius advertising for a while.  While was kind of unique in of itself – and perhaps green-oriented you might say – because we did not have enough vehicles to supply demand.  But we have changed that now.  

We do some different things besides straight advertising.   We have a hybrid synergy tour, for instance, that launched last month.  It really is an educational effort on our part. It is almost like a moving auto show on a semi-truck that exhibits our hybrid technology and how we are trying to integrate it into other vehicles that we are bringing to market.    

We show [consumers] how the technology works.  People like the idea of the regenerative nature, where you are actually recharging the battery when you put on the brakes.  At the same time, there are others who want us to develop a Prius that you can plug-in to the electric grid to recharge the battery.   

From a pricing standpoint, we are trying to offer more in that vehicle for the money.  For instance, we are coming out with different versions of the Prius, a sports version.  We put leather in the car last year and added more features.  People wanted a little bit of a luxury feel to the vehicle which may seem counter to the type of people that we may think buy that vehicle.    

MG: Overall, how would you characterize your target audience?  

BE: We are seeing a broader customer demographic base that we have in the past based on our research.   

People feel it is a smart decision on their part to drive a vehicle with hybrid technology.  They do not think that they are bragging or showing off or becoming a tree hugger.

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Engaging Green Consumers through Consumer Generated Content

April 19, 2007

Part I of an Interview with Bruce Ertmann, Corporate Manager of Consumer Generated Media, Toyota 


Most companies find themselves today grappling with how to manage consumer generated content (CGC).  On the one hand, by facilitating CGC creation, companies provide an opportunity for consumers to engage with a brand.  On the other hand, when CGC is created and shared broadly, it has the potential to influence and shape brand perceptions independent of company-sanctioned efforts and direction.  Not surprisingly, corporate executives used to tightly controlling brand messaging tend to be uncomfortable with CGC due to its unpredictable nature.

Yet, companies like Toyota are embracing this challenge and testing the CGC waters across all of their brands and products (whether specifically green or not).   In the process, they are finding that CGC can provide not only an engaging way to interact with consumers, but also an informal channel through which to build relationships with them.  Specifically, Toyota has demonstrated best practices by leveraging CGC to:

Build brand engagement:  Companies are facilitating content creation as a way to drive meaningful brand engagement.  Toyota marketing has done this through, for example, its “Everyone has their reason” campaign that solicits testimonials from hybrid owners about why they purchased their vehicles and invites them to join their community.

Activate influencers: Companies are generating buzz and stimulating viral marketing by activating key influencers – including bloggers and enthusiast site operators. 

For Toyota, this goes beyond seeding information to bloggers, but includes actively engaging them in ways once reserved for traditional media.  This may include inviting bloggers to press events or granting them access to key executives for interviews.  By doing so, Toyota has implicitly recognized non-traditional media as not only a legitimate media outlet, but one that is increasingly in competition with traditional media for share of voice.

Moreover, by engaging enthusiasts, companies empower them to serve as advocates for the brands for which they are passionate.  For Toyota, that has meant that enthusiasts have stepped into a quasi customer service role by explaining difficult issues to consumers seeking information or perhaps even speaking on behalf of the company during a product recall.

Establish a dialogue with consumers: Consumer-to-consumer dialogue is proliferating, driven by the emergence of social networks and chat sites.  More and more, these sites are catering to niche segments, enabled by online platforms such as Ning, KickApps, GoingOn, and PeopleAggregator for social networking and Chatzy and ChatShack for chat.  

Corporations have an opportunity to move beyond push marketing by participating in a dialogue with consumers on such sites, or perhaps even at live events.  Corporations, however, should tread lightly when participating in consumer-driven chat rooms and communities; full transparency is a must when doing so.

Toyota has stepped into this dialogue by participating in online chat sites, communities, and even offline enthusiast-initiated events.  In the process, it has discovered that such conversation creates a two-way communication channel.  This dialogue can be invaluable for things like reaching customers that have had a less than optimal experience through more formal service channels and touch points.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Bruce Ertmann, Corporate Manager of Consumer Generated Media at Toyota, about the role of CGC at the company, specific initiatives in market and impact in the green space.  Here is what he had to say:

MG: Some might think it somewhat strange for an automobile manufacturer to employ a corporate manager of consumer generated media.  As such, please tell me why this media is so important to Toyota and what your role is in facilitating its creation.   

BE: What we have found and heard from respected sources like BuzzMetrics is that consumers are becoming more prolific on the Internet and have started to use the Internet as a communication tool – to get information, share stories and opinions with others, etc. 

Moreover, this communications space has become very, very influential.  Consumers trust other consumers more than anyone else. And as a corporate entity, we felt that to ignore that space would be very foolish.  To jump in as a big corporate entity and just crash the party would not be appropriate either. 

As such, we felt that we needed to embrace what we call the non-traditional media and include it as part of our overall corporate communication plan.  We view this as a complement to what we do in corporate communications today and not in any way a replacement. 

My job has been to introduce that thinking into our business plan, and, in particular, into corporate communications which is where I work.  At the same time, I help educate our senior management as to why it is important to do that.

MG: Senior executives typically resist efforts to encourage consumers to voice their opinion. In particular, executives feel that by doing so they are losing control over their corporate brand identity.  Was that the case at Toyota?  

BE: To some extent there has been that concern.  When something negative comes about with respect to the company – a product issue, for instance, a recall perhaps – we tend to be proactive in making sure that we address it and communicate it directly to those customers that have that particular product. 

But we are also very reluctant – as most companies may be – to publicize it or to share it outside of the need to know.  In other words, there is a belief that a recall has a stigma attached to it.  So from a product’s stand point, there is a bigger concern amongst senior management that we would lose control.

If we are going to participate on blogs and in online dialogues then, it is all important that we be as transparent as we can, and maybe be upfront in sharing some of the things that previously would be a little embarrassing to us. 

The way I view this is almost with reverse logic when in comes to a recall. We should be the ones to control the message to the public because there aren’t any real secrets with respect to the Internet.  Part of my job is to educate senior management as to why doing almost the opposite of what they are accustomed to may be the thing we should do. 

I think I have been able to show where it has been very effective in terms of making these types of recalls go smoother, or perhaps mitigating some of the bash talk by people online that say we are going so fast that our quality is slipping.

MG: In many ways you are creating a channel for the customers to express their opinions, rather than having them find or create their own channels to express them.  When using your channels, consumers may be more polite when expressing their dissatisfaction, because they are communicating directly with you rather than more anonymously to the world at large.  Have you found this to be the case? 

BE: That is correct. What it has helped do is to find those customers who somehow have fallen through the cracks so to speak with respect to an issue or a product.  I have been able to find some of them online and get these people to the right person to resolve their issue.  

We do a lot of product marketing events where we invited traditional media to “ride and drive” weekends. I have been successful in convincing marketing, for instance, to also include non-traditional journalists – bloggers and web operators of online enthusiast sites.  This has actually been pretty successful because [non-traditional journalists] tend to compete, if you will, with the traditional media. 

MG: Absolutely! 

BE: I have been successful in getting our marketing group to now include select bloggers in our events, and have been rewarded with some pretty good blog posts as a result. 

One site we have worked with in the past is PriusChat.com.  I think there are about 16,000 regular members of that enthusiast site.  And I have been told by BuzzMetrics that there could be five times as many people who access the site just to read the comments. 

MG: Tell me how you have worked with PriusChat.com and other hybrid enthusiast sites to engage with consumers. 

When I worked at the customer experience center, we launched the first generation Prius.  We had an issue with EPA mileage ratings of 60 [miles per gallon].  Quite frankly, in the real world you do not get 60 miles per gallon which became a customer satisfaction issue. 

When I found the PriusChat.com site, I was impressed with the level of knowledge that some of the regular posters who were diehard Toyota Prius enthusiasts.  And I found that there was quite a lot of discussion about the mileage issue back then. 

But, what I also found was that [the online discussion] was naturally self-regulating.  In other words, someone would make a post about a new Prius: “I am happy about it but I am really concerned about the mileage I am getting.”  Well, one of the experts on the vehicle would post a comment to that, in a professional manner, explaining the real world realities of the EPA tests.  And over time, it helped to communicate – in a much better way than we were able to do – the realities of driving a hybrid vehicle. 

I was impressed by an online consumer driven enthusiast site that basically handled a consumer relations problem that for us was difficult to communicate.

MG: What about in the case of a product recall? 

BE: We had a special service campaign, or recall, on the steering component of the Prius last year. This was perhaps a more serious recall because it was on our Prius which is our only unique hybrid vehicle, and it involved a steering component which is technically a safety-related issue.  As such, we foresaw the potential for considerable concern by vehicle owners.  We also risked having others seize this moment to criticize us and our technology. 

So, I worked with that enthusiast site in this instance.  I started with a special communications to them.  There were people on the site that understand the technology and did a great job of taking what I would post and adding their own commentary to create positive sentiment towards our actions than we might have accomplished before. 

We had a good relationship with that site, in part, because I had the opportunity to meet the owner – oddly enough because I noticed a post of his one day where he was talking about actually getting a Prius.  Many members of the site were almost flabbergasted that here is the guy that started PriusChat but never actually owed one.  But he explained that he had a Toyota and he wanted to get a Prius, but had to put the money aside to do so.  He was actually buying one from a dealership in Chicago so he kinds of made it into an event with this web site and the members were a part of it. 

The event was planned for when he came to Chicago to take delivery of his Prius.  They had a lot of the Chicago members come, but other consumers flew into Chicago to participate in this event as well.  

MG: That is impressive.  Was Toyota involved in planning this event? 

BE: No, but I did make an effort to attend.  I was impressed that these participants in an online site would get together.  So I did show up; it was held at a dealership.   [The site operator] actually lives in Columbia, South Carolina so he flew up there to take delivery of the vehicle. And then he posted online the route they were taking driving back. 

[The day of the event] was hot and muggy. I was in my cargo shorts and polo shirt.  We had name tags.  Mine identified me as TMS USA [Toyota Motor Sales].  It was funny because I was so accustomed to seeing some of the screen names of some of the regulars on this site. To see them in person was very interesting.  There were doctors, there was a lawyer, a homemaker.

Conversely, when they looked at me they said: “You must be kidding.  You are Toyota?”.  I go, “Yea, I’m Bruce.  I am Toyota”.  They were quite impressed that I actually came out for that.


Green Branding Imperative

April 17, 2007

“Brands will not be able to opt out of [being green].  Companies which do not live by a green protocol will be financially damaged because consumers will punish them.  In the longer term, I do not think they will survive.”         Lee Daley, chairman and chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi UK 

The game is changing; it is now an imperative for all brands to be green.  The environment, and specifically global warming, may soon be an incendiary issue for corporate America. One recent poll indicates social responsibility is valued by American consumers and “damaging the environment is the main reason [consumers] would think that a company is socially irresponsible.”  (Italics added) 

Because of the catastrophic, and likely irreversible, consequences of global warming, corporations may find themselves lightening rods on the issue. Companies risk being branded socially irresponsible, making them vulnerable to criticism and putting brands at risk. 

This risk is likely only to increase with time. Brand perception is likely to be shaped by potential influencers including consumers, businesses, governments and non-governmental organizations.  These groups are growing rapidly and becoming more vocal.  Indeed, influencers have significant power as demonstrated last week when Mia Farrow successfully associated the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing with genocide in Darfur, causing the Chinese to rethink their support for the Sudanese government. 

Moreover, a recent Supreme Court decision will only embolden those that seek redress from corporate America.  The 5-4 ruling states that EPA’s decision not to regulate carbon under the Clear Air Act was “arbitrary, capricious or otherwise not in accordance with the law”. Smart marketers will view the Supreme Court’s ruling as a catalyst for proactive change.  By doing so, these marketers will reduce the risk of public criticism tarnishing their brands (e.g. through negative PR, lawsuits), while perhaps securing a competitive advantage by staying ahead of the curve. 

Such a strong association between corporate action – and potentially inaction – on the environment and social irresponsibility leaves brands at risk unless proactive steps are taken to become green.  Emerging green consumer purchase behavior suggests this scenario: 

  • Despite the real threat of global warming, consumers will continue to spend on the things that they want and enjoy
  • Demand for green (or greener) products will increase over time as attitudes and social norms evolve, new product choices become available and information that enables consumers to make informed purchase decisions (e.g. green labels) is introduced
  • Consumers will start to shift spending to greener brands within a category
  • Consumers will increasingly prefer to purchase from companies with a brand that is perceived as green, regardless of whether or not the product that they ultimately purchase is one of the company’s “green” products

For corporate America, this should be wake-up call.  Simply put, every brand will soon need to be green, regardless of whether or not customers are actively buying green products today. Yet the window of opportunity is closing: soon green will simply be a threshold to compete.  Moreover, it takes time to build green credentials that consumers deems authentic. Companies that do not actively pursue a green brand strategy today risk being left behind; and as Daley suggests, those who do not may even jeopardize their very survival.


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