a Toyota Prius is suddenly chic! But getting one hasnt been
easy. Demand for Motor Trends 2004 Car of the Year has been
so unexpectedly strong this past summer, buyers have been willing
to wait six to eight months and pay $6,000 to $8,000 above its original
price of $20,000 to $26,000 to get one. Savvy dealers have been
auctioning off spots on waiting lists for $500 or more on eBay,
and some anxious buyers have even resorted to on-line auctions to
bid over $30,000 for used ones! To better meet demand, Toyota is
boosting production in the coming year.
The Prius and other hybrid cars by Honda combine gas engines with
battery-powered electric motors to achieve up to 60 miles per gallon.
Ford is now launching its own hybrid Escape sport utility vehicle
that is expected to achieve about 35 miles per gallon. Ford says
that at least 30,000 people have expressed interest in its hybrid
SUV over its Web site, but it plans to produce only 20,000 this
year. Consequently, Ford is expecting a buying frenzy of its own.
The price premiums for the Prius have been extraordinary considering
that most automakers this past year have had to offer significant
discounts to encourage sales of their conventional cars and SUVs.
Ford has offered $5,000 in incentives for its popular Explorer.
Interestingly, given the price markups, the Prius really isnt
economical for drivers interested in fuel savings. Compared to a
conventional Toyota Camry, for example, the Prius will save only
a few hundred dollars annually on gas. As the price gap between
the Prius and other conventional Toyotas widens, the Priuss
gas-savings payback could take yearsprobably beyond the useful
life of the car.
Car culture, however, is all about status, and not surprisingly,
most Prius buyers tell the media that saving money really isnt
the issue. Simply put, Prius drivers think their cars are cool!
Its the car of choice for eco-conscious celebrities, such
as Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Larry David. Even Google-founders
Larry Page and Sergey Brin each drive a Prius, reflecting their
modish anti-tycoon personas. Those lucky enough to drive
a Prius say it allows them to make public statements about their
social and environmental concerns. Indeed, the Washington Post reported
recently that in focus groups, hybrid owners say they prefer the
Prius because of its distinctive lookits oversized curved
body, high-back end and dazzling digital dashboard. Prius owners
admit that they expect to turn heads and receive accolades for their
smart choices. In short, many Prius drivers want to be conspicuous.
Wanting to be seen saving energy is called conspicuous
conservation. Similar to the better known spectacle of conspicuous
consumption, this emerging trend carries the same belief that
you are what you own. However, it exalts virtue over
tawdry materialism. The idea really isnt new. A counterculture
lifestyle without cars, refrigerators or electricity from the grid
has been around since the 1960s. Its been conspicuous, but
hardly alluring. Todays new conspicuous conservation, however,
carries a smarter, high-tech appeal.
Wordspy.com defines conspicuous conservation as using technology
to live more frugally and to conserve resources, and it reflects
the increasing popularity of state-of-the-art wares and technologies
designed elegantly to protect the planet. Energy Star appliances,
compact fluorescent lights, photovoltaic solar panels, high
performance homes and wind turbines atop skyscrapers (as planned
for New York Citys Freedom Tower) all embody smart frugality
with superior performance and style. In the wake of 9/11, the Iraqi
war and soaring oil prices, environmentalists longstanding
advocacy for energy conservation has taken on added resonance. High-tech
prudence simply makes sense. As the SUV fades as the icon of the
good life, the Prius now symbolizes the socially better
The rising zeal for hybrids and chic frugality could spread, encouraging
companies to give other products much-needed efficiency makeovers,
such as high-speed computers and air conditioners. Ideally, the
trend could spark innovation and create jobs while reducing societys
energy gluttony. Clearly, businesses can take advantage of conspicuous
conservationand perhaps profitably encourage its proliferationwith
the right product features and promotional messages. Good green
marketing offers insights on how.
Selling Value over Virtue
Businesses need to convince consumers that saving energy is smart
beyond personal virtue or fashion. Traditionally, consumers have
resisted green products (e.g., energy-efficient appliances,
eco-safe detergents), distrusting their claims or believing that
they are not as effective as conventional, non-green
products. Past research and corporate experience with marketing
environmentally-preferable products, however, uncover four important
lessons regarding how to give such products mainstream appeal.
First, green products must function as effectively as non-green
products and avoid the quality/cost trade-off. Consumers will not
pay more for inferior products. If green products cost more, consumers
must be convinced of their worth. Second, environmental and efficiency
product attributes should not be promoted as the primary product
benefits. Because consumers select products primarily on how well
they meet basic needs (e.g., convenience, functionality, status)
rather than how they protect the planet, marketers should promote
green features as added selling points to already effective
Third, environmental product features should be positioned as smart
advantages. Consumers are more likely to act on green product messages
that they can experience personally, such as safety
or cost-effectiveness, rather than less-personal, earth-oriented
messages, such as ozone-friendly or recyclable.
Because green product attributes frequently offer inherent personal
health, safety, economic and convenience advantages, companies should
emphasize and deliver on these benefits. Philips learned this lesson
when marketing the energy-saving EarthLight, launched
in 1994. Sales initially were lackluster. After some consumer research,
however, its name was changed in 2000 to Marathon to
emphasize the products long-life convenience and cost savingsfeatures
that better resonated with consumers. Since the name change, according
to the Wall Street Journal, sales have grown 12 percent annually.
Likewise, the green construction industry has recognized the importance
of referring to eco-designed dwellings as high performance
to emphasize their resource- and energy-efficiency, high-tech convenience
and long-term money-savings advantages.
Last, if the green product attributes dont lead naturally
to consumer-sought advantages, add features that do. In China, such
a situation confronted marketers of refrigerators that did not use
ozone-damaging chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs) in the 1990s. Research
found that Chinese consumers recognized that CFC-free
refrigerators were good for the environment, but the feature had
little bearing on their purchase decisions. Consequently, the CFC-free
feature was coupled with others that were important to Chinese consumers,
such as energy efficiency, quality and outstanding after-sales service,
making CFC-free refrigerators more attractive.
In sum, businesses need to position or combine green and efficiency
product attributes with advantages sought by mainstream consumers.
Adding hybrid technology to popular SUVs follows this wisdom. To
further expand hybrid cars appeal, however, automakers need
to pitch other benefits. Aside from status, many drivers seek convenience
features in a car. Fords hybrid Escape offers convenient electrical
outlets for drivers who need to plug in laptops, power tools and
other appliances while on the road for work or play. In addition
to not having to fuel up so often, hybrid cars may even quicken
commute time in some states where hybrids are allowed in car pool
lanes even without other passengers on board.
Performance is also destined to become another selling point for
hybrids. Next spring, Toyotas Lexus will release its first
hybrid SUV, the RX-400h, based on the existing RX-330. Combining
a V-6 engine with an electric propulsion system, it will have improved
acceleration over the RX-330, the power of a V-8 and the fuel economy
of a compact car. Although designed for the status-oriented driver,
the RX-400hs advantages will interest other market segments,
such as law enforcement and the park service. Other smart features
and advantages are destined to be realized as automakers identify
ways to further leverage hybrid technology and align these innovations
with the needs of other consumer segments.
Perils of the Cool Factor
While promoting chic frugality could bring about a less energy-intensive
world, conspicuous conservation isnt a panacea. Well-meaning
consumers may think theyre doing right by buying more and
more technologically-efficient gizmos, but in the end, it could
lead to more consumption and waste. The problem with hybrid cars,
in particular, is that their greenness is partly deceptive.
They only address fuel economy and not societys larger behavioral
problemreliance on private automobiles over walking, biking
and public transit. The special perks being granted by cities and
states to hybrid cars to encourage adoption, such as free parking
and access to carpool lanes without passengers onboard, simply reinforce
our congested one car, one driver lifestyles. Without
changing how we think about transit and our overall consumption
behavior, the techno-fixes of hybrid cars and conspicuous conservation
may achieve only a slight amelioration of our energy and environmental
To benefit society, smart frugality must lead to a smarter awareness
of how our consumption impacts our future. If conspicuous conservation
only perpetuates the idea that we can chicly buy our way out of
the worlds environmental problems, however, it will become
just another guise of conspicuous consumption.
Edwin R. Stafford teaches marketing at Utah State University/Logan,
and researches the diffusion of cleaner technology. He can be contacted
via e-mail at: Ed.Stafford@usu.edu.