Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Fueling Sales: Beyond MPG Numbers

The race to prove one’s superiority is on in 2008 and is sure to continue into 2009, even as gasoline prices fall significantly. The idea that $4 gas is possible is in the mind of the consumer and it has changed the perspective on what is important in the purchasing decision. Fuel economy is now even with safety and quality when it comes to leading factors when buying a car.

So now that fuel economy is a major influencer, how are the automakers responding to this change? Product changes take years in manufacturing leaving marketing with the brunt of this task. You have to sell the products that simply exist. There is no silver bullet to improve fuel economy in a matter months.

One issue becomes obvious very quickly, most non-hybrid cars have similar fuel economy numbers, provided they are the same class of engine (4, 6 or 8 cylinder.) A lineup of 4-cylinder sedans have pretty much the same mpg numbers within 1-3 mpg, leaving marketers with little competitive advantage in the mpg distinction. A couple ways companies have dealt with this dilemma are as follows.

One approach is to show dominance by using miles superiority on a tank of gas. The new Chevy Traverse launch site does this using a PowerPoint graphic. The Traverse gets consumers another 60 miles in driving range before a refuel when compared to its competitors, yet it has the same fuel economy as the Ford Flex and Toyota Highlander. How does it do this? Through the magic of a bigger fuel tank. Never in my wildest dreams did I think the size of a fuel tank would be used to show a competitive advantage in fuel economy. To hell with logic, Chevy just bolted on a bigger tank to the frame. Advantage Traverse! Or something like that.

Chevy isn’t alone in this approach. In the UK, the Smart car competes with several small compact fuel sippers and decided to use driving range as a differentiator for the ForTwo model. Fortunately, Smart uses a more whimsical approach by letting the site visitor choose the correct answer of how far the Smart can travel. They even bring in a bagpipe player to celebrate the news.

Another approach is Honda’s Fit online game experience. This one is really odd. The concept here is to show the Honda Fit as a “a hero of fuel efficiency” by pitting it against the “Fuelivors”. Fuelivors are represented as big, old, inefficient American cars. Though this isn’t a challenge against a Chrysler Sebring, Chevy Cobalt, or Ford Focus. No that would be a fairly even match; instead, Honda brings us back to 1960 American big cars, complete with fins and giant grilles. Too bad online games weren’t around during the 1970s gas crisis as the Honda Fit game would’ve been a perfect fit.

There really hasn’t been a great approach yet to differentiate on fuel economy, unless of course you are a hybrid – the Prius hybrid. In the non-hybrid category, there may be some opportunity to find a way to extend fuel economy beyond just mpg numbers. Besides fighting 1960 Impalas or having a larger fuel tank, product is what gives you a competitive advantage in fuel economy, marketing less so.

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