Nissan recently announced that it has sold 100,000 of its Leaf electric cars worldwide since the car went on sale three years ago. That’s not many by regular-car or hybrid-car standards (Toyota, across its hybrid lineup, has sold more than 6 million of its cars albeit over a longer period of time).
But the numbers say a lot more about the challenges of selling pure-electric cars than they do about Nissan’s EV product and marketing strategies. Leaf is the top-selling electric car in the world, after all.
And Nissan is making strides in the U.S., even with consumer reticence around range, which will continue until there is a system of charging stations in key markets. The automaker posted sales of 22,610 of the cars last year -- more than in 2011 and 2012 combined. Erik Gottfried, Nissan's director of electrical vehicle sales and marketing, tells Marketing Daily that the car has begun catching on in markets that would not usually be associated with electric cars -- like Atlanta, which actually became the number-one market for the car last year and has remained so for five months running.
This past spring, per Gottfried, Nissan was selling from 25 to 30 cars a month. "We have reached the tipping point in that market,” he says, conceding that those numbers would be much higher if consumers knew they could charge their cars both at home and at work -- something the automaker has been working on.
There are 42,000 of the cars on the road now in the U.S., and their owners are a major part of the sales formula. "They are talking to co-workers, and friends; we haven't had this kind of community of engaged owners since the Z [sports car],” he says. “We are seeing new interest in Texas, Colorado, Salt Lake City. "You can't push it too much, but we can definitely keep fanning the flame."
Nissan has also tweaked the Leaf message -- which, when the car launched, had been about environmental benefits touted with ads featuring polar bears and gasoline-powered shavers and coffeemakers. "The result of those ads was high awareness, but the areas of familiarity and opinion are where we have started to see big moves. That's partly because we are messaging more about the car as fun and practical," says Gottfried.
Advertising focuses on the 20 markets Nissan is targeting for the Leaf. The company has been doing three campaigns per year against Leaf. “Every three to four months we go out with ads; they serve as a reminder or a prompt, driving consumers to Web sites and to do research online," says Gottfried, adding that when consumers come into dealers to test-drive they are much closer to purchase than prospects of traditional cars because they are probably not cross-shopping another vehicle, given the paucity of competitors and they do a lot more research than the average car buyer. But they are challenging because they know a lot and their expectations are high. “They are highly educated and very well-informed,” he says.
Gottfried says Nissan is focusing on social media to facilitate peer-to-peer conversations about Leaf among owners and fans with such forums as a private Facebook page with a rotating participant base, cycled out every few months. "These are private discussions on a private forum with owners, and they love it." he says. The automaker also hosts an owner advisory panel administered by electric-car advocate Chelsea Sexton, who was featured in the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car."