Ford Motor Co., introducing its first hybrid-only model, is targeting Toyota Motor Corp.’s market-leading Prius in a series of advertisements starting today.
The C-Max wagon, a vehicle Ford brought from Europe and equipped with a gasoline-electric propulsion system, arrived in showrooms last month. The model will be promoted in an animated ad campaign debuting on CNN’s TV network that features line drawings of a character driving a C-Max past a rendering of a Prius V wagon as an announcer extols the Ford over the Toyota.
The C-Max is among six new hybrids and electric cars Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford is fielding this year and next in an effort to advance in a market dominated by Toyota. The Prius line of four models accounted for 51 percent of U.S. hybrid sales this year through August, while Ford had 4 percent, according to researcher LMC Automotive.
“The challenge is that the Prius has such a strong brand in the hybrid space,” Michael Omotoso, senior manager of global powertrain research at LMC Automotive in Troy, Michigan, said in an interview. “The C-Max is new so it faces a challenge in consumer awareness and in convincing people interested in a Toyota to consider a Ford instead.”
Ford is using the animation to draw attention to the C-Max ads, Jim Farley, the company’s global marketing chief and a former Toyota executive, said in an interview.
“When you’re a challenger brand like we are, you have to break through with your message to get noticed,” Farley said. “Two-D animation is not something you’re used to seeing. It’s to get people’s attention to say, ‘There’s something new.’”
Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally has made fuel economy a cornerstone of his turnaround plan. The C-Max is rated at 47 miles (76 kilometers) per gallon both in the city and on the highway, Ford said in a statement today. That exceeds the 44 mpg city and 40 mpg highway for the Prius V wagon, though the C-Max trails the original Prius car, which is rated at 51 mpg in the city and 48 mpg on the highway.
Ford has also priced the C-Max to start at $25,995. That’s below the Prius V’s base price of $27,345, according to researcher Edmunds.com. Ford also said the C-Max can generate 188 horsepower, more than the Prius V’s 134 horsepower.
As an animated C-Max zips by a drawing of a Prius V in the ads, an announcer says: “C-Max has lots more horsepower than Prius V, a hybrid that C-Max also bests in mpg.”
Ford declined to say how much it is spending on the ad campaign. Wes Sherwood, a spokesman, described it as “a major launch” that “will extend over a longer period of time to help establish the new name.”
Ford, which had 9.5 percent of the U.S. hybrid market last year, expects to recover some of the share it lost with the C-Max and Fusion hybrids coming this year, said Matt VanDyke, director of U.S. marketing for the automaker.
“With the C-Max, you’ll see our share and volume increasing in the hybrid market,” VanDyke told reporters today in Dearborn. “We absolutely expect that to continue next year.”
Ford will introduce a plug-in hybrid version of the C-Max later this year and a plug-in Fusion early next year, VanDyke said. Ford doesn’t have a specific share target, he said.
The automaker took a light-hearted approach to taking on the Prius in its ads to avoid offending loyal owners of the Toyota model, said Toby Barlow, chief creative officer of Team Detroit, Ford’s ad agency, which is owned by WPP Plc.
“You don’t want to walk into a party and walk up to the most popular guy and say, ‘You’re a jerk,’ even if he is,” Barlow said in an interview. “You want to be as charming as possible so that you don’t put people off before they hear you out.”
By targeting the Prius V, Ford avoids the “800-pound gorilla” that the original Prius car has become, said Omotoso, the LMC Automotive manager.
“The Prius V is only going to sell 10,000 to 15,000 units a year, versus the more than 100,000 the regular Prius does,” he said. “So if Ford sells 20,000 to 25,000 units of the C-Max, they’ll be happy.”
Toyota sold 32,218 of the Prius V through September period, the company said in an e-mail.
Ford sold about 27,000 hybrids last year and had only sold 14,000 this year through August, Omotoso said. Ford’s hybrid sales have fallen this year as Toyota and Honda Motor Co. have restocked their inventory after losing production because of Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Ford also lost hybrid sales from dropping its Escape hybrid earlier this year, Omotoso said.
“It will be tough for a domestic automaker to have the same level of recognition” as the Prius, Omotoso said. “But Ford is spreading their risk over several hybrid models. Even if none of them are particularly successful, Ford won’t lose its shirt.”
Ford gained 1.7 percent to $10.11 at the close in New York.