Heading into this year’s Sustainable Brands conference, I was looking forward to driving BMW’s electric prototype that was on display. In hindsight, however, the technical highlight of the show for me was the Tesla Model S. You know, the ones that people were actually driving, with coffee cups in the console and crumbs in the backseat.
Don’t get me wrong. BMW makes fine automobiles, and I’m sure that their electric offering will be an excellent machine when it finally reaches the market. As to how BMW’s EV will match up against Tesla, it’s hard to say. They are different classes, and a lot will change between now and then. Regardless, I don’t think Tesla execs are losing a lot of sleep. They’re frying bigger fish — specifically, the flagships of a few luxury stalwarts. Tesla is now outselling premium sedans from Mercedes, Cadillac, Audi and Lexus in California. In fact, the new high-performance sedan is outselling the entire line of 12 major auto manufacturers in the Golden State.
So, is green turning to gold?
Not so fast. This embrace of Tesla is complex. In fact, a closer look at Tesla buyers reveals that their demographic is not what you would expect.
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Tesla buyers are more mpg-conscious than the general public (definitely some Actives in the group) but less so than Prius buyers, who are four times more likely to be focused on mpg than the Tesla market.
Trade-ins show the broader demographic appeal of Tesla; new owners’ previous vehicles are nearly as likely to be mini-vans or SUVs as hybrids. Edmunds.com, commissioned by CNBC, found that, compared to other luxury sedans, Tesla buyers skew younger and richer and are more likely to be men.
What does that tell me? Despite the fact that a certain segment clearly has green motivations, Tesla is really grabbing market share as a car enthusiast’s car. Testers have said it’s more exhilarating than anything coming out of Maranello or Stuttgart. Consumer Reports called it the best car they had ever tested. The list of performance-based accolades is extensive, and Tesla has been so kind as to collect them on its website.
In short, Tesla did not set out to simply build a green car. They set out to build a great one. While other manufacturers have tried to make their hybrids and EVs reach the bar set by the 100+-year-old internal combustion engine, Tesla has embraced the electric advantages (and there are many) with no apologies and refused to sit on its green laurels. In fact, if you visit the website, you will be underwhelmed by the company’s green marketing efforts.
Toyota has built a powerful brand on sunflowers and happy trees — certainly nothing to scoff at — but Tesla is breaking new ground: “Don’t buy us because we’re greener, buy us because we’re better.”
The moral of the story is simple.
Hiding behind Mother Earth’s green skirts only gets you so far. Tesla’s future is not guaranteed, but it’s hard to overstate what they have accomplished so far. It’s been generations since anyone has broken into the domestic car market, and Tesla has done so by building a brand on merit. Sure, keep a green emphasis, but successful brands will thrive on broader virtues.
As marketers, our control over the products we promote is limited, but in many cases, products and services that have been re-engineered to be greener will benefit from going back to the drawing board in other areas as well. Look for these advantages and marry them to your core green messaging. To be truly successful, sustainability needs to be more than just greener. It needs to be better.
This post first appeared on the Shelton Insights blog on October 2, 2013.