Expect car brands to launch half-baked marketing in rush to electric

Consumer demand for electric cars is about to turn a dramatic corner, but how many auto brands will have a real story to tell about innovation?

by Nicolas Roope

It’s not long ago that only the Tesla S, Nissan Leaf, BMW i3 and Renault Zoe were the only pure electric cars we’d spot on the roads, year after year. A polite tribe, a peripheral species that was more curiosity than serious contender.

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Slow shifts beckon in complacency and now suddenly we’re at a dramatic inflection point. The epicentre of the biggest pivot since Ford set up production lines to fire out Model Ts by the millions. We’re about to witness a bloodbath as the new-starts and incumbents battle for supremacy in automotive’s new era.

Only this year, the UK government slid back its proposed date to blanket ban every vehicle that runs on the black stuff by 10 years to 2030. If a model’s development cycle is 10 years, it just lost a whole cycle.

The apparent snail’s pace of EV adoption so far could easily fool you into thinking the graph will be a gentle sweep upwards. But it’s about to turn a very dramatic corner. In 2021 we’ll see a huge uplift in pure electric launches both from start-ups and incumbents. Serious contenders vying for a place in the new order. Evaluated by market cap, Tesla has graced top spot already, but even relative unknown pure-electric player NIO is at number six already selling more than 20,000 units this year in China.

The compound pressure created by the rapidly expanding competitive landscape and the squeeze of approaching regulatory timelines leaves a lot of the automakers with their pants hanging loosely around their tyres. A palpable freak-out is felt in an industry only recently slipping merrily along on the lube of their own hubris.

There’s a huge consequence for marketers at the end of this often mangled chain of decisions. You can’t pivot a product life-cycle mid-way, so, over the next couple of years, we’re going to see lots of premature launches of half-baked concepts in the rush to grab a stake in EV. These about-turns inevitably lead to less than impressive performance stats that appear more and more conspicuous as market awareness grows and latches on to benchmarks set by pure-players that aren’t burdened with the twin-task of shooting an EV rocket into space, while simultaneously managing the gentle palliative care for their huge internal combustion ranges nose-diving toward termination.

Marketing is going to get handed some rotten briefs to prop up poorly conceived product and capabilities, fit only for a sweeping under the rug. The new electric Mini launched this year has only two-thirds of the range of the exclusively electric Fiat 500 that was architected ground up as an EV, a result of many a misstep that cost BMW’s CEO Harald Krueger his job. We’re going to see these disparities open up much wider between marques and models over the coming years as new concepts emerge in the flurry of technological innovation. In one way this means rich pickings for brand builders and storytellers, but only if you’re on the right side of the innovation. On the wrong side and the marketer will have a pretty serious mess to clear up, trying to paper over gaping holes in acceptable standards.

You can’t apply old logic to a new situation. So much is changing in automotive we have to treat this as a revolution rather than an evolution. That means a more radical appraisal of how the products are communicated and how brands will be built to thrive. What we’re selling is fundamentally different, the driving and ownership experience will change fundamentally, if customers are even owners at all in the classic sense. When we (Poke) launched EE in 2012, the brief was to create a digital brand not another telco operator. That didn’t just demand a shift in messaging, but a foundational reappraisal of principle and approach. We launched the brand in social media, before the stores opened, and the TV ads ran nearly two months later. A radical departure from the norm, but an approach that laid the foundations for a very valuable brand as BT demonstrated with its big-ticket acquisition. Auto brands that accept this virgin context will do well.

Revolutions can be moments to lose all focus in the speed of change and the ensuing confusion that comes from accepted truths becoming irrelevant conjecture. But they are also the best moments to take stock, simplify and reinvent brands for the unveiling epoch.

Marketing in automotive can no longer be an auxiliary function, because the brand is baked into the product story like never before. And with dealer networks being replaced by direct digital channels, the need to integrate brand experience, marketing and service more completely and elegantly has never been more pressing. Even in digital and traditional comms, there is a job to do, revolutionising the way product and brand functions and stories are told.

I wrote recently about the poor job Honda has done to excite the world about its fantastic Honda e launch. And yet I have recently witnessed progressive campaigns from the likes of Polestar committing to a long-term transparency drive to actively participate in the broader conversation about the shift to cleantech. And Rivian, one of the shining stars of this new world of EVs with its heavily product heroed sponsorship of AppleTV+’s Long Way Up. New ideas about how to tell a brand story and demonstrate the realities of these new technologies and the cultures they generate.

Beyond the detail, this is, of course, a battle for brand supremacy. It is exactly at these moments of maximum confusion and disruption that brands are forged, enhanced or indeed obliterated.

Audi’s long-standing supremacy at the premium head of VAG is already looking shaky after the bug-riddled launch of the eTron last year. Volkswagen Chairman Dr Herbert Diess recently went on record stating that Audi has “Started The Race To Catch Up To Tesla”, a concerning self-subordination of the former crown-wearing supremo. And yet in a recent identity refresh launch, Audi senior VP Henrik Wenders said: “By refining our brand strategy we give a contemporary definition to ‘Vorsprung’ and make ourselves ready for the future – for a new automotive era and for our customers.”

Audi, if you’re really committed to making sense of this new era, perhaps now is the time to finally stop clinging to “Vorsprung durch technik” (progress through technology). “Ein neuer anfang” might be more appropriate. Not just for Audi, but for the sector as a whole.

Nicolas Roope is an independent marketing consultant and co-founder of Poke (now Publicis.Poke)