How To Brand A Hydrogen-Fuel Cell-Powered Car

Having returned recently from a Hydrogen Fuel Cell conference in Vancouver, where I spoke on branding, I’ve been thinking about how I might go about branding a car for the consumer market that runs on this emissions-free fuel.  It’s an interesting challenge, given the head start that gas-powered cars have in branding their fuels and technology. Ads that urged us to “put a tiger in our tank” or drive with “V Power” have always been with us, and today we don’t think twice about filling up at the pump with our usual brand. It will take a few more years, but this is going to change.

Hyundai, as just one example, showed off a hydrogen-fuel cell-powered SUV that it plans to mass produce. I saw it in Vancouver, and I can tell you it’s pretty slick. The cost will be about the same as a gas-powered car, it runs for hundreds of miles on a tank of gas (hydrogen), it’s on par with a gasoline car in terms of safety, and there’s no pollution.

You can put your face over the exhaust and breathe deep: the only thing coming out of the engine is water vapor. That doesn't mean people will buy it. The technology is new, and it takes time for consumer acceptance. Plus, the car companies need to have hydrogen added as a choice at your local filling station. This dream technology will make it big only if it’s really well branded. So, what should a company call its car and how should the brand look?

Given this branding challenge, I’d focus on three main things. First, this car brings together great economy and no pollution, without the compromise of an all-electric engine. Nobody wants to deal with range anxiety, worrying if their car is going to run out of power before they get home. The paradigm of filling up at the pump is deeply engrained in our culture, and the hydrogen fuel car fits perfectly with this. It’s not so alien to us that we won’t buy into it. The other thing I would do is explore branding that highlights the fact that the only exhaust is water.

The perfect name for this car is the Aqua. Wouldn’t you want a Toyota Aqua? Volkswagen almost got it right. It has a very futuristic vehicle on the drawing boards called the Aqua that runs on hydrogen. Unfortunately, it’s designed to go on land, water or sand. It’s something the Jetsons would use.

This is all wrong. The Aqua brand should be the everyday peoples’ car brand, the car you use in the city or in the country. Not something to buy years down the road, but a car that works right now. Water is a fundamental part of nature. We all want clean water. The name is also simple and easy to
remember. And it fits in a graphic of a water droplet. All the prototype vehicles in Vancouver were labeled “Hydrogen Fuel Cell Powered” or some other engineering-driven mouth-full.

But nobody buys cars that are named “Powered by Gasoline.” We buy the Toyota Prius and the Ford Focus. Volkswagen still has time to get it right and switch its naming architecture so its new hydrogen-fuel cell-powered car (which is in the works) is called the Aqua, while its Jetsons vehicle is given a name that implies it can go anywhere.

Consumers right now don’t want to go anywhere, zipping over sand dunes to get to grandma’s house. They’ll stick with the road and buy an Aqua. I would.

3 comments about "How To Brand A Hydrogen-Fuel Cell-Powered Car".
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  1. Ford Kanzler from Marketing/PR Savvy, July 24, 2013 at 12:19 p.m.

    Given an effective infrastructure exists so there aren't overwhelming barriers to the (HFC) category, why would branding for this be any different than in other categories? If you're first out with an HFC vehicle, claim first and only until the competition catches up. After that, figure out what's different about your HFC car, SUV or truck that's valuable to prospective customers.
    Your statement that, "This dream technology will make it big only if it’s really well branded," really doesn't hold water. People will want HFC vehicles from a range of manufacturers, particularly because by the time HFCs are available, gasoline will likely be costing about 2 or 3x today's price. Frankly, people don't buy a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, etc. primarily because of the name it was given.
    The actual name given a product is marginally important in comparison to effectively differentiating it. Naming is a tactic. Differentiation is the strategy and the name should serve the strategy.
    This is all covered exceptionally well in Jack Trout's "Differentiate or Die."

  2. Chase Gregory from NSG Consulting, July 24, 2013 at 12:44 p.m.

    Aqua?? Really? There was already an underwater car called Squba, and that is much closer to be called Aqua. A HFC car will be named many things as the car brands develop mass produced versions of cars that have HFC's. You need to think more about the consumer when it comes to this, even if they do not do this yet. I feel it is very important to stress the consumer when branding something so monumental.

    My two cents.....on the thoughts of a clean it "Adroit," meaning "quick or skillful or adept in action or thought; "an exceptionally adroit pianist"; "an adroit technician"; "his adroit replies to hecklers won him many followers"; "an adroit negotiator"

    If any manufacture wants to use this name, send them my way before suit. lol

  3. Ted Page from Captains of Industry, November 20, 2013 at 9:13 a.m.

    Chase and Ford, thank you for reading my post about branding hybrid electric cars. By way of response, I want to point you to something that's in the news today (three months after my post), about Toyota's new hydrogen concept car. The name of their concept car is a placeholder at this stage ("FCV concept"), but they designed the car itself to resemble a drop of water. Toyota's designers and marketers have validated my point: the fact that water is the only exhaust from this type of technology should be central to how it is presented to a consumer audience.

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