Toyota set the mark for the hybrid car with its Prius model in 1997. In the intervening two decades, it has been the car to drive to show the world you take a personal role in combatting climate change, hate oil companies, or are budget conscious about the amount of gas you need to buy. It came in four versions: red, silver, blue and the one with the Obama 2008 bumper sticker.

The car has had a 20-year brand affinity love affair with white, upper-middle class, educated liberals from urban areas to the point the creators of South Park satirized the deep connection between the Prius and the sense of moral superiority its drivers have in one of its most biting episodes of the series. If driving a Cadillac was the mark of success in the 1950's and 60's, driving a Prius in the 21st century has had the same cache (but not the same envy) if you want to show the world what you value.

As brands go, the Prius is a home run because its value proposition is meaningful to its customers, offering them emotional, functional and self-expressive benefits which make them brand ambassadors and loyal customers--and that's why it's been the best selling hybrid every year. Until recently.

I generally don't spend too much time watching car ads, but when I saw a Prius ad this weekend, I immediately knew sales were down. Suddenly, Prius has become the car for men who wear steel-toed boots to work, young African-Americans and police officers chasing getaway cars (both, of course, driving Priuses). Out with the soothing music, lush landscapes and talk about fuel mileage, and in with Fender guitars, spinouts and stretches of open highway. Why in the world would Toyota throw out such a successful marriage of product and customer? Did an ad agency steer them wrong? Is it a sign of change in the earth's polarity? Might the Buffalo Bills finally win a Superbowl?

Sure enough, when I looked at sales figures before I wrote this post, the Prius is on the verge of being eclipsed by the Ford Fusion Hybrid, but more importantly, as electric vehicle technology has improved, the Prius is no longer the status symbol for the eco-friendly driver it was five to ten years ago. Now you've gotta have the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt or Tesla Model S to show you care about the planet. Indeed, hybrid car sales have plateaued or dropped across the board as plug-ins have risen over the last few years.

So what do you do when your partner ditches the marriage and finds a younger, hipper technology? Drop a few pounds? Take up a new hobby? Move to a new town? In Toyota's case, they've decided to throw out all the old brand equity they had stored in the closet and jump on a dating site to find a new partner. I think they are going to see like many before them it's not a simple two-step.

I'm not sure how much Toyota is willing to throw at finding a new love, but it looks an awful lot like the middle-aged man who starts dating women half his age. There's always going to be some cultural disconnect which has to translate, but it will never carry the same meaning as it did for people in your cohort.

That's not to say blue collar workers don't like good gas mileage when the price of gas is high, but the car will never be as meaningful to them as it was an early adopter in global warming science. Where you once had an emotive connection based on core values, now you're getting into bed with a new partner who has much less emotionally invested and thinks of you more like a hook-up. It's strictly transactional.

If Toyota believes the plug-in EV has replaced the hybrid in the hearts of eco-conscious car buyers, it can't just change the story it's been selling about its same old self itself for two decades. It's a high-risk, half-court, behind the back, off the backboard, nothing but net prayer that works one in 100,000 times. A company can't just change the contents of the book it wrote while keeping the cover because it's the "in" color this year.

Something in the calculation has to change. Toyota either needs to redesign the car to make it pertinent for their audience or reposition the Prius as the "bridge" car for those who have to travel long distances (like commuters in large cities), but who still want to be environmentally friendly. Or they could try to cast doubt about the technology of the new love in an attempt to bring the jilting partner back home, which only works as long as the company's long-term strategy isn't about dominating the EV market the way it once dominated the hybrid market. Finally, there's the bounce back strategy in which the partners get remarried six months after the divorce, or in this case, Toyota announces they are ceasing production of the Prius to jump into the EV market with the same verve and gusto which kept them a step ahead of the competition with hybrids. This transition would mark a new chapter in the green car sector, but one that's consistent with the story Toyota's been selling for two decades--and they'd have a pre-order list which would keep their factories busy for months.

Building brand loyalty is similar to walking into a bookstore. Readers who want to read mysteries will go to the mystery section, while history lovers will go to the history section, and so on. It's where they feel most comfortable, and it's where they believe they will find fulfillment.

Treating your story as interchangeable is like changing the signs in each section in an attempt to get your readers to try something new. All you end up with are confused and angry customers who can't find what they are looking for, so they forego the bookstore experience and instead buy their next book on Amazon. Meanwhile, thousands of books collect dust, so you have to cut prices to compete. And we all know this is a story without a happy ending.

 

 

 

CleanTech Focus