Advertising the Most Popular Electric Cars

electric vehicles Jan 24, 2022
by Michael Jones

You would think that the current supply chain crisis would be bad news for the nascent electric car industry. Just as demand for electric vehicles finally starts to pick up, manufacturers get hit by shortages of chips, electric motors, battery packs and countless other components that that have forced many companies to slow, or even halt electric car production.

Even Tesla, which sells more electric cars than anyone else, and presumably holds more sway over the electric vehicle supply chain, acknowledges that its biggest challenge right now is not a lack of demand for electric cars as much as their own ability to ramp up supply.

Of course, traditional cars are facing the same problems, and that has led to something of a silver lining for electric cars in the form of a huge, pre-ordered advertising inventory that many automotive marketing directors have decided is now best used to sell battery electric vehicles.

Advertising airtime is typically bought and paid for well in advance so ad buys for many of the commercials we are seeing now would have been purchased long before the current supply chain issues created a shortage of cars on lots.

What's more, automotive advertising budgets (in normal times, at least) are generally split into three broad categories – annual sales events (think Presidents Day or December to Remember), brand enhancement (think Chevy’s Like a Rock or Built Ford Tough) and new model launches. So with many of the highest profile new model launches being electric cars, and with limited inventory of traditional cars available for annual sales events, it makes sense to use that prepaid inventory to start persuading consumers to think electric.

Increased Electric Vehicle Ad Spending

Car brands collectively ran almost 33,000 spots for electric vehicles in 2021, coughing up an estimated $248 million for the privilege. That’s more than four times the number of electric vehicle spots they ran even in pre-pandemic 2019, when just $83 million was spent on 8,000 spots.

Over the same period, national TV advertising budgets for vehicles powered by internal combustion engines dropped from an estimated $3.8 billion in 2019 to $3.1 billion in 2021, which resulted in car companies running 35,000 fewer ads for traditional cars.

Besides the established automotive brands, electric vehicle start-ups are also boosting their advertising spends. Up and coming electric truck maker Rivian, which spent a paltry $29 million on advertising in 2019 and 2020 combined, expects to ramp up its marketing spend significantly now that it has gone public and actually has electric trucks to sell.

For start-ups like Rivian, and Lucid, which also went public last year, the challenge is not just to market their electric vehicles, but also the companies themselves. Persuading a customer to buy a big ticket item like an electric car from a company they've never heard of before is a whole new marketing challenge in a world where household names like Ford, GM and Mercedes are now starting to compete.

Even for those household names, advertising electric vehicles is less about selling specific cars, since so few are available on lots anyway, and more about selling a vision of the future. And in typical car advertising fashion, it’s a vision that places the electric car squarely at the center of a better, cleaner, more efficient world.

Tesla's Model 3 became the best selling Electric Vehicle without spending much on advertising. The legacy auto makers are not following their lead.

Tesla, of course, led the way in presenting an electric vehicle future that was actually better than the internal combustion engine past. And ironically, they’ve done it without spending a gazillion dollars on advertising. (Although Elon Musk's guest appearance on Saturday Night Live in May of 2021 did prompt a number of automotive companies to run ads for their own electric vehicles).

Now that all electric models are available, albeit still in limited quantities, the marketing is about selling the idea of electric vehicles to a customer base that is just beginning to see the appeal.

Nissan Leaf Ad Sets the Bar on Electric Vehicle Ads

One of the earliest electric vehicle television ads to make a splash was a humorous one promoting the 2011 Nissan Leaf. The ad invites the viewer to imagine a world where everything runs on an internal combustion engine, including our alarm clocks, our coffee makers, our computers and, most horrifyingly, our dentist's drill. Once the absurdity of that imagined world sets in, they ask the obvious question: Why then, would we power our cars with an internal combustion engine?

This ad, and others made the Nissan Leaf the top selling electric vehicle up until 2019, when it was surpassed by the Tesla Model 3.

More traditional automakers, like GM, Ford and Volkswagen, among others, have only recently started producing appealing electric cars in the kind of volume that would justify expensive, national TV advertising campaigns. Their electric vehicle ads have come late to the game but GM did air a Super Bowl ad in 2021 with an all-star cast that included Will Ferrell lamenting the fact that the US was being beaten in electric vehicle sales by Norway, of all countries.

Since then GM has entered a collaboration with Disney (about as mainstream as you can get) for promoting the Chevy Bolt with characters from Star Wars, Dumbo and Peter Pan. The idea is to challenge the notion that electric cars are for just for a relatively small number of people who are worried about climate change but are perfect for families, for road-trips, for soccer practice and for all kinds of other uses.

GM is using an association with Star Wars to advertise its Chevy Bolt brand.

Volkswagen, meanwhile, has used its sponsorship of the US Men's and Women's National soccer teams to promote its all electric SUV proclaiming in ads that "before it can change the world, it has to change yours".

While Nissan was the most profligate advertiser of electric vehicles in 2019, Jaguar overtook it in early 2020, only to be overtaken itself by Audi in May of 2021. Audi, in fact, had 21 unique ads in 2021 followed by Ford, Nissan, GM and Chevrolet with 14 unique ads each.

And Let's Not Forget The Plug In Hybrid

A popular ad last fall during NBC's Monday Night Football was one for Hyundai's plug in hybrid Tuscon. The ad, called Gas Card, portrays a father, who gives his daughter a gas station gift card for her birthday.

She thanks him politely but then throws it in the drawer knowing that she'll never need it for her plug in hybrid electric vehicle. Later she is able to re-gift it back to her father, having never used it, when his own birthday rolls around.

A recent ad for Hyundai's plug in hybrid Tuscon promotes the virtues of never needing the gas station gift card your dad gave you for your birthday.

It's a cute ad, filled with wholesome family imagery, and a nice suburban backdrop, reinforcing the fact that plug in hybrids, just like their fully electric cousins, are for regular folks leading regular lives.

TV to Digital for Electric Vehicles

Often the principle aim of ad campaigns for electric vehicles is to drive online traffic. The idea is to use the television ad to entice a certain portion of viewers - particularly younger ones - to seek out more information online.

Ads for electric vehicles typically out perform their traditional car counterparts by a large margin in this regard. Take one television ad for an Audi electric vehicle, as an example. It was found that viewers were 90% more likely to look up the car online than viewers of a similar ad for one of the same company's traditional cars.

Even more impressive were the results of an ad that ran during Saturday Night Live for Volkswagen's ID4 electric SUV. The largely young audience for that show caused an immediate 800% spike in online searches for the vehicle.

An All Electric Version of An Existing Brand

Some companies, such as Ford with the F-150 truck and the Ford Mustang Mach-E, are marketing their electric vehicles on the back of long-established brands from their stable of traditional cars.

This is something that Karna Crawford, Ford's director of marketing communications refers to as "electrifying our icons". The launch of these two iconic brands as electric vehicles has led to a 15-fold increase in Ford's EV advertising commitments from fewer than 100 spots aired in 2019 to almost 1,500 in 2021.

The Ford F-150 Lightning is part of Ford's strategy of "electrifying their icons".

Other legacy car companies, like Volkswagen and Nissan are pinning their marketing hopes on new brand names, such as the ID4 electric SUV and the Nissan Leaf, respectively - brands that only exist as electric cars.

And meanwhile, Audi has flipped its priorities totally, spending over four times as much on advertising its electric vehicles ($54 million in 2021) as it does promoting those powered by internal combustion engines ($13 Million). The German company plans to offer more electric vehicles than any other brand by the end of 2022 and promises to have the last gas-powered car roll off its production line no later than 2026, two years earlier than any of the other legacy auto companies have targeted.

Electric Vehicle Advertising Starts to Pay Off

Approximately 5.6 million electric cars are expected to be sold worldwide in 2022, an almost 100% increase over the previous year. While that represents just 8% of overall vehicle sales, it’s certainly a sign of a tide that is finally turning. One reason is the wider array of electric models to choose from. Globally, there are now more than 500 different electric car models available, a five-fold increase since 2015.

Even in the US, where sales of electric vehicles lag far behind the global average, the small numbers look like they're about to change. While electric cars make up just 2% of new car sales in the US, a recent survey of 33,000 drivers, found that 65% agreed that electric vehicles represent the future of the automotive industry. 22.9% said they would consider buying a new or used electric car, with the top three reasons being concerns about climate change, reduced maintenance and fuel costs and taking advantage of electric vehicle tax incentives.

Home Charging is Also Driving The Change

And then there is the issue of charging. One often-cited barrier to higher sales of electric cars has been the lack of public charging infrastructure. While this issue is being address at both the state and federal level in the US, and by private companies Chargepoint and Electrify America, the real change is occurring at the homes of vehicle owners.

Private garages and parking lots will see 2.1 million electric vehicle chargers in 2021, many funded with the help of federal tax credits. This represents a 63% increase in private charging infrastructure. And given that over 80% of electric vehicle charging is done at the home of the vehicle's owner, this is where that infrastructure needs to be located.

And the importance of private charging infrastructure was evident prior to the launch of the Ford F-150 Lightning, when Sunrun, the nation's biggest installer of residential solar partnered with Ford to become the official home charging installer for the iconic brand.

The proprietary bi-directional charging station that Ford and Sunrun developed together gives the F-150 it's biggest unique selling proposition. Not only can you charge the vehicle from the house but you can power the house from the vehicle in the event of a blackout. And tying it all in with the country's most prominent solar company just reinforces the real goal, which is the notion that electric vehicles are best charged with renewable energy.

The charging partnership between Ford and residential solar company Sunrun reminds us that Electric Vehicles are best charged with renewable energy.

So in spite of the supply chain issues, and to some extent because of them, auto manufacturers are starting to turn the corner on electric vehicles. And now that they can see a clear demand, their preferred method of marketing them - expensive flashy television ad campaigns - is starting to show up on our screens.

One thing is for sure though, at least in the US. For electric vehicles to truly take off, the types of vehicles that are rolled out, need to match up with the types of traditional cars that are already successful.

It’s no coincidence that the F-150 (an electric truck) and the ID4 (one of several electric SUVs) are two of the highest profile electric vehicle launches of recent times. American drivers have made it clear that these are the types of vehicles they want to buy. It’s a far easier sell vision in which the car looks very much like the one they currently drive except that it runs on an electric motor and doesn’t trash the planet.