How To Market A Groundbreaking SUV

Ford is pitching its gas-electric hyrbid to techies, as well as greenies

For James Feagins, buying a new Ford Escape gas-electric hybrid SUV wasn't as much about saving pennies on fuel as it was about wanting to do his bit for clean air. "The environment is important to me," says the Fairfax (Va.) real estate agent, who picked up his $30,000-plus, top-of-the-line, silver hybrid Escape on Sept. 30. With a job that requires a lot of stop-and-go driving, he's pleased that Escape's 33 mpg should at least double the fuel economy of his old Ford Explorer. But truth be told, he's most excited about the kick of driving the latest auto technology. "Guys like their toys," admits Feagins, 48. "I like technology."

Ford Motor Co. (F ) is counting on finding at least 20,000 buyers a year who feel the same way. And the auto maker hopes there will be many more as it rolls out additional hybrid vehicles in the next few years to meet demand and burnish its brand image. The success of Toyota Motor Corp.'s (TM ) latest Prius sedan has proved that hybrids aren't a short-lived novelty like electric cars. And they aren't just for Birkenstock-shod tree-huggers anymore. These days, hybrid buyers are looking for a cool car without the gas-guzzler guilt. Auto makers see another new audience emerging: technology-obsessed men. And to reach these diverse audiences, Ford is pitching its hybrid in venues previously ignored, such as Mother Jones magazine, holistic health forums, as well as in science magazines and a national tour to attract techie fans like Feagins.

The Escape's hook: It's the first full-fledged hybrid SUV. More significant, it's aimed at buyers who are looking for the space, power, and rough-weather capability of an SUV that was missing from early hybrid cars. "People don't want to sacrifice to drive a hybrid," says Brian Moody, road test editor at auto information Web site Edmunds.com Inc. "People are willing to do the right thing for the environment -- as long as it's easy."

Convenience was a big factor in Feagins' hybrid Escape purchase. He says he wasn't tempted by earlier hybrid cars from Toyota and Honda. "I was waiting for an SUV," he says, with all-wheel drive for snowy days and room inside for his Doberman and dachshund.

HYBRIDS AHOY!

Ford's Hybrid is the opening salvo in a burst of new vehicles that use hybrid technology to deliver more power, convenience, and prestige, as well as fuel economy. Indeed, any auto maker that doesn't have hybrid vehicles in the pipeline is seen as not just environment-unfriendly but also as a technological laggard. Honda will launch a peppy Accord sedan hybrid in December (page 106), and Toyota plans two SUV hybrids for early 2005 that get V-8-style power with a V-6 engine. Ford's first hybrid passenger car, the Fusion, and the Mercury Mariner SUV should arrive in the next three years. General Motors Corp.'s (GM ) full hybrid vehicles begin arriving in 2007.

So how popular will Ford's hybrid be? Its order bank is already "a few thousand," along with 70,000 requests for information. Even though the hybrid Escape starts at $26,970 -- about $3,400 more than the V-6-equipped conventional model -- Ford expects to sell every one it makes. It had better: Toyota has a six-month-plus wait list. If the Escape doesn't stay oversold too, it could draw negative buzz.

To generate sunny word of mouth, Ford is trying to lure the "opinion influencer," the one who devours information about new technology and advises friends on purchases. "This is the guy you talk to when you want to buy a plasma-screen TV," says Escape marketer Sheri Shapiro. A hybrid is a natural fit for this crowd, says Edmunds' Moody: "It's the automotive equivalent of the iPod. You can show it off, but it's also practical."

A DIFFERENT KIND OF CUSTOMER

Ford began studying potential buyers while its hybrid was still in development. Starting in 1999, marketers collected focus groups of environmentally conscious consumers as well as technology fans, then picked a handful who agreed to let Ford study them at home. Marketers spent a day of "ethnographic immersion" with these customers, Shapiro says, studying their homes, the goods they purchased, their driving habits, leisure activities, and even home decor. As the launch neared, Ford closely monitored the opinions of consumers who flocked to its hybrid Web site. The result surprised many Ford executives, Shapiro says: "It's someone supermainstream, not the stereotype" of the die-hard environmentalist who was the early hybrid customer.

Ford was challenged because likely buyers of the hybrid Escape are much better educated, wealthier, and older than existing Escape owners. Eighty percent of hybrid customers are college graduates vs. 44% of existing Escape owners. Would-be hybrid owners earn $20,000 more. They tend to be between 35 to 40 years old, vs. 25 to 35 for the standard Escape. And they are much more likely to live in an urban or major metropolitan suburban market.

How to reach these buyers? They watch 14% less television than the average consumer and aren't swayed by jingles, so no Escape hybrid TV ads. Instead, Ford created a data-rich Web site with a mileage calculator, videos, and elaborate schematics of how a hybrid works. Because these consumers subscribe to four more magazines than average, ads run in Smithsonian, Scientific American, and National Geographic magazines -- where ads for the standard Escape wouldn't appear. And Ford says its newly launched nine-city tour is drawing large numbers of techies who want to take one for a spin. Positive buzz among these drivers, especially on Internet bulletin boards and chat rooms, will make or break the Escape.

For the green crowd, Ford is promoting the hybrid at sustainable-lifestyle conventions and gatherings such as the Mind, Body & Beyond Expo. It arranged a tie-in with Honest Tea, a large bottler of organic beverages, and took hybrids to the Carmel (Calif.) tomato festival. And in a show of bean-sprout solidarity, Ford told readers of a New Yorker advertorial that project leader Mary Ann Wright is a longtime vegan, with 11 vegetarians on her team.

Back in the Fifties, the coolest new car purchase was a swoopy-finned V-8. In the '90s, it was the biggest SUV. Could it be that one day soon drivers will be vying to have the greenest car on the block?

By Kathleen Kerwin in Detroit

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