Automotive advertising finally goes electric
If you watched NBC’s Monday Night Football show in the fall, you might have seen a Hyundai ad titled “Petrol card.” It goes like this: a father gives his daughter a gas station gift card; she never uses it because she drives a Hyundai Tucson plug-in hybrid; she returns the card to him on his birthday. The style, as for the other tasks in hyundai countryside for its new electrified SUVs, will be familiar to any regular American television viewer: a bit of lighthearted humor unfolds in a sunny location where yards are tidy, traffic is light and neighbors are friendly.
“We want it to be part of our brand,” says Angela Zepeda, director of marketing at Hyundai Motor America. “We try to capture a bit of their heart or their funny bone.”
The Hyundai campaign was part of a pivotal year for electric vehicle advertising. Many of the major automakers, for the first time, have begun giving plug-ins the kind of domestic push usually reserved for their best-selling combustion engine models.
Automotive brands collectively aired four times as many national TV ads for electric vehicles in 2021 than in the previous two years. General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG, among others, spent about $248 million on nearly 33,000 spots, compared to $83 million spent on 8,000 ads in 2019, according to data from the start-up. According to EDO, Inc. marketing analysis, ads for traditional models fell by more than 35,000 plays as automakers slashed their national TV budgets from about $3.8 billion in 2019 to $3.1 billion. dollars in 2021.
At General Motors, for example, the EV advertising plan has three stages, according to marketing director Deborah Wahl: standardize, personalize and hypnotize. “The EV consideration accelerator is much faster than we thought,” she says. “In our minds, we are already past normalization.”
The rapid shift to electric marketing was partly a ripple effect of disturbances in the supply chain, according to EDO President and CEO Kevin Krim. Automakers typically split their national advertising budgets between annual sales events (“December to Remember”), new model launches, and brand polish (“Built Ford Tough”). This year, with the shortage of cars with internal combustion engines, brands have fallen back on the first two categories. Why tell consumers to hurry today for a car that doesn’t exist? — and used their airtime, often paid for well in advance, to entice shoppers to think electric.
“It’s really striking that even though everyone has seen the electricity coming for a long, long time, no one has really sent it on any scale,” Krim says, “until this you run out of conventional cars, then you might as well sell the future.
Once automakers started dipping their toes in the water, they found a warm response to consumers. EDO tracks online searches for brands and products to measure ad performance. Typically, when an advertisement airs, a portion of the viewers search online for more information. Electric vehicle ads, Krim says, outperform traditional car ads on this count. Viewers who saw an advertisement for an Audi electric vehicle, for example, were 90% more likely to search for the brand online than viewers who saw an advertisement for one of the brand’s combustion engine models.
Audi made the most dramatic change. Over the past three years, its ad allocation has shifted from majority combustion engine to majority electric vehicle. In 2019, the German brand spent around $22 million on national EV ads and $56 million on traditional models. In 2021, it spent $54 million on electric vehicles and $13 million on the rest.
For Audi, change is an existential imperative, according to Jessica Thor, director of the company’s marketing campaign strategy. This year, the German automaker says it will offer more electric vehicle models than any other brand and has pledged to manufacture its last combustion vehicle in 2026. “A lot of our research shows that people consider electric vehicles as their neighbor following car purchase,” says Thor. “We’re trying to bridge that gap for them and show that they’re not really compromises.”
Until this year, the history of EV advertising has been defined by absence. Tesla, the market leader, is notorious for not advertising, and mainstream automakers have mostly overlooked the few electric models they offer. In many cases, money-losing electric vehicles called “compliance cars” built to meet federal and state emissions requirements. Advertising was largely limited to digital inventory, direct mail, and other low-cost options to consumers who had expressed interest. If you were an early adopter in a state with an EV mandate for automakers, you might have received an online banner, but that was about it.
“Previously, we really focused on delivering messages more regionally,” says Hyundai’s Zepeda. “We were doing a lot of direct mail, a lot of email and social media [ads].”
This is changing as traditional brands devote more resources to building electric vehicles that to attract a new type of buyer. “Our strategy is different now because we’re electrifying our icons,” says Karna Crawford, director of marketing communications at Ford, referring to the recent launch of the Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lightning coming in the spring. “This means that we are prioritizing these vehicles at the heart of our marketing strategy.” In 2019, Ford ran fewer than 100 EV ads, according to EDO. In 2021, it had nearly 1,500.
To generalize electric vehicles, it will be necessary to educate consumers. “We don’t just assume people know about this technology and now they’re just comparing prices,” says Zepeda, “It’s about teaching.” To use industry jargon, brands are “selling the whole category” by trying to convince consumers that an electric vehicle isn’t a grindstone keeping you from driving away from home, but a delicious new technology that allows you to avoid the gas station. “It’s not really about advertising,” says Wahl, at GM, “it’s about creating a movement.”
Ford’s top spots for the F-150 Lightning showcase the roomy front trunk and show owners using the truck to power their home in the event of a breakdown. “These features and functions are stories you couldn’t tell when promoting ICE vehicles,” Crawford says.
Over time, if the ads work, the brand will come before the powertrain in consumers’ minds, and as more models hit the market, brands may revert to product differentiation. The surest sign that the EV market has matured will be when ads are for tail lifts, speakers and upholstery.
“We want to show that this is first and foremost an Audi,” says Thor, “and that it’s also electric.”