I spent the back end of last week in Portugal, and while the trip was nothing to do with work ostensibly, I couldn’t help noticing that Lisbon appears to be the one place in Europe where Renault has succeeded in selling the new Megane in significant numbers.
That observation alludes to an altogether bigger storm in a teacup that’s been blowing around Renault since the Frankfurt auto show last September. Back then, you’ll remember that Carlos Ghosn effectively bet the future of the entire company on EVs taking off in a big way – the company unveiling four electric vehicle concepts which will be put into production from next year.
That move surprised a normally conservative car industry. What’s surprised more since Frankfurt though, is that Renault’s advertising campaign has been dominated by the four concepts and the whole zero emission (“Z.E.” in Renault speak) concept – rather more so than its mainstream Clio, Megane, Scenic and Laguna models. They’ve even been running a rather sickly TV advert featuring a rather serious voice-over and heart-string plucking Keane sound track, which Robin Brown neatly pointed out, managed to make a genuinely innovative, radical strategy look like green-washing (see it below):
Above: Renault's "Drive the change" advert
If you’re flying in Europe at the moment, you’ll probably have noticed the campaign, too. It’s called “Drive the change”. Renault appear to have bought a lot of airport advertising space in Europe’s key hubs to highlight their plan – so, on Thursday, the first thing that greeted me in arrivals at Lisbon was a giant Twizy advert. Now, according to Steve Cropley’s column in this week’s Autocar magazine, Renault – and Ghosn – are under fire in the French press for focusing too much on these electric models that are still two years away, and hurting sales of the current range
This rather neatly illustrates some of the issues car makers are going to face as they provide (and governments encourage) a move to an increasingly electrified automotive fleet. With the average man on the street probably still skeptical about climate change, and perception – in a country such as the UK – of the EV being rooted in the milkfloat, how does a company raise awareness of, and ‘market’, forthcoming electric cars? Are conventional methods going to work? Perhaps not.
Not only that, but from the perspective of the car maker’s financial health, there’s a need to continue squeezing every last drop of revenue from current ranges (and by inference, the internal combustion engine), which is difficult, while also trying to convince people that EVs are the way forward and you’re leading the way in green initiatives.
There’s no one obvious solution to overcoming such headaches; Renault is just the first to face this problem, and it certainly won’t be the last. However, I suspect we’ll see a diverse set of approaches to marketing new powertrains, which broaden the current toolbox of approaches.
There is however, one approach currently employed today, which feels even more tailored made for helping the public understand the benefits, and 'believe in' EVs. For years, car makers have pushed cars into rental fleets – primarily to ease over-supply, and help boost registration (ie sales) numbers. But a known, acknowledged benefit is that as lots of people get exposure to your models, and are (hopefully) impressed by them, the model in question makes a strong enough impression that next time they’re in the market to buy a new car, that car goes on the shortlist, and potentially ends up being converted into a sale for the car maker.
Clearly, Renault’s alliance partner and leader-elect in the electric vehicle world - Nissan – can see the value of such an approach, because last week they announced a deal with rental car company Hertz, who will rent the forthcoming Leaf from 2012 in Europe and the US. It looks like a smart, and obvious move for both parties. The chance to truly try before you buy – and perhaps spend a couple of days with an EV, outside of the confines and limitations of the dealership sales network, is surely a key tool in convincing both the sceptical and the curious that an EV is actually what they want to buy. Drive the change, as Renault would say.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 22nd February 2010.