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A Hybrid’s Niche? The Masses, The Honda Insight Hopes So

Posted on March 20, 2009
Filed Under Honda Insight | Leave a Comment

new-insightThe souring economy has shifted the advertising spotlight from higher-end, premium-priced products to less flashy, mass-market offerings that do not require buyers to cash in their 201(k)’s, as in the retirement accounts formerly known as 401(k)’s.

That is particularly true in the automotive category, in which brands known for sensible pricing — Hyundai, Kia, Subaru — have recently been outperforming more expensive competitors. So the timing may be right for a hybrid car with a suggested retail price starting under $20,000 — the first in the American market in that price range.

That new model also comes as car sales decline along with gasoline prices, which may diminish consumer interest in greener transportation.

The American Honda Motor Company is taking a big risk on the potential appeal of a more mainstream hybrid. The automaker plans to introduce the 2010 Honda Insight on March 24, with sticker prices of $19,800 to $23,100 (plus destination charges).

By comparison, the 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid, from the Ford Motor Company, is priced from $27,270, and the 2009 Toyota Prius, from Toyota Motor Sales USA, starts at $22,000. The largest hybrids, like the 2009 GMC Yukon from General Motors, can cost $50,000 or more.

A campaign for the Insight, with a budget estimated at $50 million to $75 million, is scheduled to start on Monday. The campaign is by RPA in Santa Monica, Calif. The ads present the Insight as a democratic car — small “d,” that is, as opposed to, say, President Obama’s souped-up Cadillac limousine — because it is priced to be affordable.

“You know who could use a car like this?” asks the headline of a print advertisement. “Everyone.”

The headline of another print ad expresses that idea more succinctly. “For the many,” it says.

An announcer in a commercial declares, “The hybrid for everyone is here,” and concludes: “The Insight. Designed and priced for us all. From Honda.”

Most ads end with these words: “From Honda. For everyone.”

The Insight is, as the campaign styles it, the people’s hybrid. Too bad there is already an automotive brand known as the people’s car (or Volkswagen, in German).

The campaign is, appropriately, broad-based, running on television and radio; in magazines and newspapers; on the Internet; and in movie theaters.

In a truly populist touch, there will be Insight ads on banners towed by planes over beaches on the Memorial Day and the Fourth of July weekends.

“It’s more of a car for the masses,” said Tom Peyton, senior manager for national advertising at American Honda Motor in Torrance, Calif., part of the Honda Motor Company of Japan.

“You don’t have to be special” to buy it, he added, or “particularly well-off.” And one Internet banner ad describes the car as “mass appeal transportation,” and another calls it “anti-niche.”

“In some research we’ve done, people said, ‘Conspicuous consumption for my automobile is not where I’m at right now,’ ” Mr. Peyton said, “and they’re starting to look at cars that are sensible, that are values.”

This is not the first time at the hybrid rodeo for American Honda Motor. A decade ago, the company introduced a two-door hatchback Insight, which became an also-ran to the bigger, more popular Prius from Toyota.

The first Insight was “more of a science project,” said Steven Center, vice president for advertising and public relations at American Honda Motor. “This one’s a real car.”

“We’re positioning it to be either your first hybrid or your first new car, or both,” he added.

The new Insight, with four doors rather than two, arrives as demand for cars — hybrid or otherwise — is falling to the levels of the early 1980s. American Honda Motor is not immune; its sales last month dropped 38 percent compared to February 2008.

“It’s not enough to say ‘It gets good gas mileage’ or ‘It’s a hybrid,’ ” Mr. Peyton said. “Value and lower monthly payments are what’s working in this market.”

“Even in a down economy,” he added, “there are people who want to buy green, if it’s affordable.”

That consideration is played up in the campaign. For instance, when the prices for the Insight were announced on Tuesday, the headline of a new post on the Insight Web site’s blog (insight.honda.com) read, “The Insight is the Most Affordable U.S. Hybrid.”

In a print ad, a list of features on the Insight ends this way: “and, most importantly, an affordable price tag.”

The subtext is that hybrids are no longer the purview of the affluent and the environmental benefits would increase if more hybrids were on the road.

“It’s affordable so more people can drive it, so the impact of hybrids can truly be felt,” said Joe Baratelli, senior vice president and creative director at RPA.

At the same time, there is no intent to apply “any guilt or pressure” to potential buyers, he added, or to seem “preachy,” because that would only be counterproductive.

During the initial planning for the campaign last year, the focus was more on how a hybrid would combat the high price of gasoline, Mr. Baratelli said.

“But we had the discussions about what if the price went back down,” he added, “so we realized we needed a bigger, broader message, a more philosophical message, that this technology is now available for everybody.”

Commercials will appear on television shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House”; on TV-centric Web sites like abc.com, cbs.com, hulu.com and nbc.com; and in movie theaters. There will also be video ads on aol.com, msn.com and yahoo.com as well as a presence for Insight on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.

The radio element of the campaign will include local promotions tied to Earth Day, April 22, involving disc jockeys and Web sites of CBS stations.

There will also be promotions for Earth Day with NBC, which will run vignettes featuring actors from its shows driving Insights. The promotion is part of the “Green Is Universal” campaign on NBC, part of the NBC Universal unit of General Electric.

SOURCE: New York Times

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