If we learned one thing from the world’s best electric vehicle market, it’s that incentives work. However, barring a bigger commitment from the U.S. government, there are numerous other ways to jumpstart the sales of plug-in cars. The authors of “Charging Up,” a study dedicated to finding answers to a sluggish EV market in the Northeast, suggest better marketing through the media and at dealerships could help increase interest and generate purchases.
Released as the joint work of the Sierra Club, Acadia Center, and Conservation Law Foundation, “Charging Up” offered nine steps for success in reaching EV goals set by six Mid-Atlantic and Northeast states in 2013. Most are failing to come close to the numbers they put on paper. Two steps fall on the shoulders of automakers and marketing campaigns from corporate headquarters to local dealerships.
For starters, you hardly even see an ad for a plug-in vehicle. This Ford Focus Electric ad from 2015 is the first released by the automaker in the U.S. to market a model on sale since 2011.
Ads featuring the popular Nissan Leaf or Model S are as hard to find or, in the Tesla’s case, nonexistent. The study’s authors noted the overwhelming majority of ads are for “gas-guzzling pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles, and conventional sedans and sports cars.” Citing ads by BMW, Cadillac, and Kia as examples of creative EV marketing, the study said more of the kind would be a help in driving sales.
Likewise, the report laid part of the onus on auto dealerships. As Consumer Reports once found in a secret shopper survey, dealers and their associates often have little knowledge or inventory of electric cars. In some cases, the shoppers were steered toward gas-powered cars.
The authors of “Charging Up” noted how placement on dealer lots is less than ideal for electric cars. In addition to actually stocking the EVs an automaker supposedly sells — not a guarantee in several markets — the report suggested dealers feature electric models front and center while allowing associates to drive them in order to gain knowledge about the segment.
Of course, selling EVs is often not in the interest of dealerships or even automakers. Compliance cars sold to meet California regulations were the norm for Honda and Fiat. Meanwhile, FCA’s Sergio Marchionne once publicly said he hoped people wouldn’t buy an electric 500e. Toyota, for its part, never made an all-electric car for sale outside California and produced a small number of Prius plug-in hybrids.
Automakers shouldn’t be judged for wanting to profit, so it’s easy to see why they would spend little time and money on marketing in a segment where it’s difficult to make a buck. The same goes for salespeople who may go months between seeing plug-ins on the lot. Why bother investing the time and energy in learning about them when you can sell a high-volume car instead?
In the end, there has to be a real incentive for the automakers to build and sell green cars. They won’t do it on their own. Which leads to the need for the government to increase its involvement, and the “Charging Up” study offers several recommendations on that front. It’s also another example of the role regulators must play in a private sector largely driven by shareholder concerns. Until the sky falls, it seems the environment can wait.