Toyota Goes Green

November 8, 2005

Volvo has obviously enjoyed tremendous success by positioning itself as the car that’s good for you. By putting safety in the foreground of everything they do, Volvo has carved out an identity in the car market that sacrifices the sexy for the pragmatic. They’ve tried to boost the appeal and performance aspects of the vehicles in recent years, yet leading-edge safety remains a foundation of the brand.

Riding the success of the Prius, Toyota has ripped a page from Volvo’s playbook – but has turned the perspective inside-out in the process. The Prius, and Toyota’s other hybrid offering, the Highlander SUV, are not just good for you, they’re good for all of us. And, by extension via a current campaign promoting the masterbrand, Toyota is good for all of us.

By all accounts, it takes a long time for hybrid cars, which are more expensive than their fossil fuel burning peers, to pay for themselves in gas savings - except perhaps in those states that offer incentives. The real benefit to hybrids comes as more people drive them, reducing both emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. Like the bulk of car promises, the consumer benefit is more psychic than actual. Yet unlike everyone else’s promise, the recipient of the implied benefit is more societal than individual.

Volvos are actually safer cars. There is a direct personal benefit for the consumer. Prius drivers benefit by performing a civic duty (perhaps even on a global scale) in driving a hybrid car. Automobile advertising typically plays to our indulgences by focusing on feature or emotional benefits (speed, luxury, cargo space, fuel efficiency). Spinning the emotional benefit into a promise of self-sacrificing reward is counter-intuitive and brilliant.

Toyota is not alone in aiming for green. Honda and Ford also have hybrids in the market and they’re claiming this space, too. But Toyota thus far has the breakthrough product in the category, the Prius, and they are hoping to generate a halo across the entire portfolio as a result.

Is Toyota truly ready to ready own the space? They combine heavy messaging around hybrids with equally aggressive campaigns around gas-guzzling trucks, vans and SUVs. The target consumer for the green message really cares about this stuff – and without a broader change in behavior and product mix, a couple of hybrids in the portfolio may come across as nothing more than window dressing. Consumers may be comfortable assuaging their own oil-consuming guilt with a hybrid vehicle, but they will demand more from the car company that promises a revolutionary approach to automobiles.

- Jonathan Paisner

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