Pulse and Glide: Getting the Most out of Hybrid Marketing

Rick Karg of RJ Karg Associates is a long-time energy consultant. He drove to Manhattan to visit his brother for Thanksgiving and spent turkey day at the police station filing a report. Someone stole off with his van. Back home in Maine, Rick replaced his tried and true sailboat-hauler with a Toyota Highlander – complete with tow package – from Lee Toyota in Topsham.

Hybrid buyers are a different breed, says Adam Lee, owner of Lee Auto Malls, the number one seller of hybrids in Maine where Rick became the happy papa of a hybrid. I learned a bit about hybrid habits from hanging around Rick who read his Highlander owner manual front to back the first night he brought the car home. The technology is intriguing; the car’s dash displays the electricity flow from battery to wheel, wheel to battery.

Adam Lee, a Maine native and third generation car dealer, tells me the average hybrid buyer is in his or her 60s, has an average income of $98K and is well-educated. But, notes Lee, things change; like bottled water and organics, the hybrid is going mainstream. Trouble is, says Lee, mainstream needs a car that’s affordable. “People with discretionary income buy the hybrids. The Prius is a luxury car.” Other cars get the mileage – the 35-40mpg – but they don’t have the lower emissions, and that’s what the environmentally-minded Prius buyers seek. It’s just not within the price range for mainstream.

I prepared only two questions for Lee after I’d been tipped off by Rick that Lee was distributing compact fluorescent bulbs to his hybrid buyers: 1) how did you decide to distribute compact fluorescent bulbs to your hybrid buyers?; 2) what other marketing do you do around hybrids?

Lee’s extensive involvement in the environmental community was, for me, unexpected: he’s on the board of Maine Audubon, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the Natural Resource Council of Maine. He’s an advisor to the Nature Conservancy. His company supports public radio. Says Lee: “We do a lot of small donations.” After Lee began selling hybrids in 2001, the Maine Council of Churches approached him. They were looking for a hybrid to display at a clean energy fair. “Word got out that we were very supportive, and we were at every fair.”

Lee acknowledges that none of this leadership in the environment will lead business directly to the doors of his multiple car dealerships. “I don’t expect to make the money back.” So why do it? “I do it because it’s the right thing to do. We could sit around and the hybrid would sell, but I believe it’s important. I have kids. I live in Maine. It helps to spread the message, and I hope that it creates more buyers.” Artwork by Lee’s children adorns the door to his office just off of the dealership showroom.

Lee donated a Toyota Highlander hybrid (31mpg) for the Maine Home Performance with Energy Star® Whole House Makeover show which is running on Maine’s CW TV out of Portland – Lee’s dealership got a major plug by the Show, although he asked not to have it so. “If you do good things, you’ll be rewarded. We would keep doing it, regardless.”

That includes a break with fellow car dealers: Lee testified on behalf of a clean car bill in Maine, a bill similar to California’s law calling for lowering pollutants from car exhausts.

“People are going to buy cars. I’m a bit at odds, as a dealer.” (Lee is also the number one seller in Maine of Jeeps, a gas guzzler: “We can’t sell only hybrids.”) But, he says, “If I can use a tiny bit of influence to get manufacturers to produce the cleaner cars, I will. They won’t do it until they are forced to make them.” Echoing Amory Lovins’ ‘drilling in Detroit,’ Lee says, “bringing up CAFE, that would have more impact than every hybrid produced.” He believes car manufacturers have failed the public by not producing cars and trucks with better gas mileage, and the federal government is going to have to force the car manufacturers to do it.

Meanwhile, Lee testifies and he sells a car that has aura – and a waiting list. “Toyota is on to something. They work hard to get more sales. You can’t fake this. You can’t ignore people’s wishes. The challenge is meeting demand.” In contrast, “GM’s cars aren’t interesting, even if they get 30-40mpg. They’re not reliable enough; they’re practical, not sexy. High mileage alone isn’t enough. Perception is important.” In a car market that has too much capacity, “Toyota’s in the lead.”

If the economy stays up and the price stays up, Lee believes Toyota will come out with financing incentives. The trick is not to dispel the aura that lends itself to the up-market segment. “Sometimes it’s just good fortune to have a great product that movie stars drive. Toyota should stick to brand.” Perhaps Toyota will “de-content” the hybrid (that is, remove features like GPS that jack up the price.)

Lee will continue to market with compact fluorescent bulbs, to partner with greenies, to sit on environmental boards. “We’re always doing something. We copied an article called ‘Pulse and Glide. How to Get 100mgp’ and sent it to our hybrid buyers.”

Lee and Toyota understand the game of feedback, the allure of watching electricity flow from battery to wheel, wheel to battery as hybrid owners try to get the most mileage out of the mpg gauge. “Feedback. The game needs feedback. Kids love it!”

So do adults. My mother who is in her 70s told me this week that she wants a hybrid. She loves her old Toyota Tacoma. My brother recently bought a Tacoma extended cab for his new country house. I know when my mom says ‘hybrid,’ it’s synonymous with Toyota.

Other goings on this week
I attended the 2006 Maine Neighborhoods: Building Strong Communities conference yesterday. Maine may look sleepy – and the abandoned textile and shoe factories bleak – but when it comes to cleantech, it has great potential; it has an energized, interested, involved community focused on sustainability. Yet, a recently released report from the Brookings Institution says Maine suffers from pessimism about its future. That’s not what I saw yesterday.

6 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    If only we could convince Adam Lee and other Toyota dealers to push Toyota to commit to Plug-In Hybrids. They, Toyota, is starting to pay lip service to PHEVs, but has not made any commitment. Oh humm.

  2. PatSparks
    PatSparks says:

    Purchasing a Toyota Prius or other fuel efficient hybrid vehicle wont save the world in one step. What it will do is send a strong message to manufacturers and governments that the environment is important to consumers and voters, so important they are willing to pay a premium for greener products to assist us in handing a better planet to our children. Some diesel cars get better millage than a Prius but they pump black gunk into the environment and are nowhere near as sexy as a Prius.If there isn't a move to cleaner transport there will come a return to the village style of living where we live and shop within a short distance of where we work and schools. Walking will be the first choice for transport. Keep up the good work, push the green line.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    CAR TAX for corporate welfare, your water, air & money at risk. AAA Southern California stands up for motoristsSaturday, July 14, 2007 NO on AB118 * Currently $0.51 per gallon goes to oil refiners for adding 5.6% ethanol to California gasoline. That is about $500,000,000.00 per year corporate welfare. * AB118 may add over $1.00 per gallon to additional gasoline profits in California * This is about the money from your pocket * The corn ethanol waiver in the 2005 federal energy bill will lower gasoline prices, improve miles per gallon, lower oil use and improve the air. * NO on AB118. Contact your elected officials and share your opinion (make copies and give to your friends) Clean Air Performance Professional shttp://clubs.hemmings.com/clubsites/capp/

  4. Charlie Peters
    Charlie Peters says:

    Schwarzenegger’s nominee to fight global warming has a checkered pastBy Nicholas Miller, Sacramento News & Review, 07.18.2007 When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger fired California Air Resources Board chairman Robert Sawyer last month, he set off a chain reaction that exposed an agency badly shaken. Within weeks, ARB executive director Catherine Witherspoon resigned, and Capitol testimony by her and Sawyer revealed unprecedented interference by the governor’s staff over the ARB’s implementation of last year’s Global Warming Solutions Act.Schwarzenegger tapped Mary Nichols to head the board. Her nomination was seen as a shrewd recovery; Nichols’ qualifications—chairwoman of the ARB under Governor Jerry Brown and administrator with the U.S. EPA under President Bill Clinton—seemed beyond doubt.But while some critics question whether Nichols will be able to effectively curb emissions within the industry-beholden Schwarzenegger administration—“I don’t think anybody should be under the illusion that appointing Mary Nichols completely solves all of the problems at ARB,” offered Sierra Club’s Bill Magavern, who gingerly supports her nomination. “It’s a first step.”—others fear she’ll be part of the problem.Their evidence? Nichols’ performance at the U.S. EPA and her role in enforcing 1990’s Clean Air Act amendments, which they contend casts doubts on her ability to effectively fight global warming in California.“I am under the impression that Mary has been wired to the major corporate agenda for decades,” argued Charlie Peters, a longstanding smog-check and environmental activist who heads up the New Jersey-based Clean Air Performance Professionals. “She’s being put in there because she does what the corporate agenda wants.”Nichols’ tenure at the national EPA marked a decided shift in U.S. policy for establishing and enforcing emissions reductions. A June 2000 report by D.C.-based nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility documents that Nichols, then-EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, played an instrumental role in undermining regulations and compliance.According to the PEER report, Nichols in 1995 touted open-market trading as the “new paradigm for market-based control,” referring to a paper by attorney Richard Ayres of the O’Melveny and Myers law firm as inspiration for the new direction.But there was a conflict of interest: Nichols’ husband, attorney John Daum, who represented Exxon in the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill case Baker v. Exxon, was an employee of O’Melveny and Myers. In July 1994, Nichols had issued a permanent recusal that forbid her to participate “in any EPA matter in which the law firm of O’Melveny and Myers is providing representational services.” Her support for the Ayres concept of open-market trading in 1995 seemingly violated the recusal, but the EPA ignored the apparent conflict.In 1995, the report says Nichols “directed EPA regional administrators to de-emphasize the Clean Air Act’s deadlines for attainment plans [or emissions-reductions goals] and instead shift to an emphasis on what she described as ‘market-based alternatives.’” This gave states the green light to initiate carbon-credit-trading programs without a national cap on overall emissions or “quantification protocols,” which would have established a common currency for trading.The Clean Air Act Corporation, an O’Melveny and Myers client, later would become the nation’s largest broker of these open-market-trading credits.A 1996 EPA inspector general report challenged the validity of Nichols’ plan, citing “invalid credits or weaken[ed] enforcement.” But Nichols and fellow EPA officials were unconcerned. “Mary Nichols and I remain committed to developing a model rule which minimizes the federal government’s involvement in the day-to-day operation of the market for these trades,” stated John Seitz, director of the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.In 1997, Nichols testified before Congress that greenhouse-gas emissions are “especially well-suited to be addressed through emissions trading because the problem is caused by cumulative emissions well mixed in the atmosphere.”PEER executive director Jeffrey Ruch explained the folly of this approach to SN&R: “You were trading one type of pollutant for another, and you didn’t have any kind of way to ensure you were getting apples for apples,” he said. “In many cases you were trading apples for the promise of a future guava.” Essentially, the carbon credits being traded were illusory; they didn’t necessarily have any net environmental benefit.Nichols left the EPA in 1997, but her “new paradigm” de facto policy remained—and proved disastrous.“She was a midwife to a stillborn in a sense that she wasn’t around when [the open-market trading] collapsed,” beginning in New Jersey in 2002, Ruch explained. A 2003 Department of Environmental Protection report observed that New Jersey’s Open Market Emissions Trading program failed to establish an emissions cap, did not verify the validity of credits and allowed facilities to build compliance strategies entirely on the prospect of using emission credits without the guarantee of finding a seller.“Instead of being a trial balloon, it turned into a trial buffoon,” Ruch quipped. “This was sort of looked upon as the next new wave in air-pollution control, and it collapsed under its own weight.”Experts are conflicted as to what this means for California and the implementation of last year’s Global Warming Solutions Act.“I’m not sure that I had high expectations to begin with,” Ruch admitted. “In a sense, you have a governor that’s just cleaned out the Air Resources Board under circumstances that seem highly unusual and controversial.” He views Nichols as “somebody who’s promising independence but certainly understands that there’s some requirement of flexibility.”“I think her appointment helps bring some stability back to the agency” and alleviates a “major problem” for the governor, said Sierra Club’s Magavern.“To me, the cornerstone of [the global-warming act’s] implementation is direct emissions reductions,” Magavern continued. “You can’t put market mechanisms in place just by having the governor’s office, through back channels, dictate that to the Air Board.”The question now is whether Nichols will share this priority—and take a stand against Schwarzenegger’s interference. http://www.newsreview.com/sacramento/Content?oid=353445Clean Air Performance Professionals

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