Not only did Ford have to break out of its shell to develop its first hybrid, it also had to take a different approach to market such an unconventional vehicle.
Unlike the first hybrids, which appealed to early adopters, Ford's Escape Hybrid is designed for a mainstream audience. The target customer is what's known to marketers as "influentials," consumers who are highly educated, well off and who do lots of research before making a major purchase. They're also skeptical of hype. Once they've done their homework and made up their minds, though, they're the experts who advise others. "We told dealers to make sure they're up to speed, because some consumers may know more about the product than the sales people," says Sheri Shapiro, the Escape Hybrid's marketing manager.
At the same time, one of the biggest challenges facing Ford is how little people understand hybrid technology. "Our preliminary data showed that 48% of consumers still think you have to plug a hybrid in," Shapiro says. (Actually, the regenerative braking system charges the electric engine's battery.) To satisfy the need for more information (some consumers emailed Ford with hybrid questions three years ago), the company launched an unusually in-depth Web site for the Escape Hybrid. It went up 18 months before the vehicle was due in dealerships. Normally, a site wouldn't go live until six months before launch. Hybrid shoppers can find just about everything but the vehicle's proprietary software. There are animated demonstrations, diagrams, video clips, photos, and a hybrid glossary.
Nearly 60,000 consumers have already registered to receive additional information — three times Ford's initial production for the Escape Hybrid. Each potential customer, or "hand-raiser" in Ford lingo, receives a CD-ROM explaining the ins and outs of the technology. Based on the online profiles of respondents, the Escape Hybrid is attracting new customers. Nearly 70% of hand-raisers don't own a Ford, the highest mark for any vehicle in Ford's fleet.
While the F-150 TV ads are staples during the NFL season, Ford promoted its hybrid elsewhere and in less traditional ways. In addition to Time magazine, it became a sponsor on National Public Radio and advertised in Mother Jones, both firsts for the automaker. It also teamed up with Honest Tea, an organic bottled tea, for a summer promotional road trip. The Escape Hybrid, emblazoned with colorful ads, toured the East and West Coast, appearing at natural food stores, concerts, and other green festivals.
To better understand socially conscious consumers, Shapiro attended the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, or LOHAS, conference last year for companies that target that group. She asked a panel how a big mainstream company could gain credibility in the niche market. "I'll give you a hint," she told them. "I work at Ford."
"These are consumers who want to know about more than your product," one of the panelists told her. "They want to know about the company that makes it, what its corporate values are."
Shapiro, who persuaded Ford to sponsor the LOHAS event this year, took the advice to heart. The Escape Hybrid campaign focuses on the company's other socially responsible efforts, or "the green side of the blue oval," as Ford likes to say, such as its Rouge sustainable manufacturing facility.
Perhaps the most effective marketing for such a different vehicle, though, is the simplest: Let people drive it. At the conference, Ford did 120 test drives in three hours, using several Escapes. People were so curious that they were lined up down the curb. "We're definitely trying to do more customer immersion," says Shapiro. "We tell people, 'You can read all about it, but you really have to experience the hybrid for yourself.'"
A version of this article appeared in the October 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.