Honda's wimpy electric car campaign shows us a car industry facing a precipice

New product categories should be crystal clear in content and radical in form.

When I first laid eyes on the Honda E, those peepers nearly popped out of my head, assuming bright-red heart shapes like a real life love-eyes emoticon.

Here was an electric city car truly embracing the new era of automotive. A concept unshackled from Honda’s internal combustion legacy and thus architected ground-up as an uncompromising, radical product and expression, not just of the automobile’s new epoch, but as a glimpse into a newly reformed Honda as a symbol.

Within a millisecond it was also abundantly clear that this car would assume cult classic status immediately, appealing to trendsetters and further accelerating the normalisation of electric vehicles in the marketplace. Oh, and here was also a thrilling EV that wasn’t either a Tesla or a new model from the already overpopulated SUV crossover format that most legacy manufacturers seem to be laying down all their EV casino chips for.

When the Honda E was finally launched, the scale of my initial enthusiasm for the product was equalled by the scale of my anticlimax experienced in response to the launch marketing.

The campaign communications couldn’t be wimpier if they tried. They don’t scream “REVOLUTION!!!" from the mountain tops, but instead murmur "meh" from some swampy bog. All the ads I’ve come across focus on novel features, completely missing the EV elephant in the room. Is the strategy to pretend there’re no revolution going on for fear of upset? I don’t get it.

While pure EV adoption doesn’t make up even 5% of UK new car sales currently, the increase is running at a staggering rate. July's figures brought a 262% increase in pure-electric registrations compared with the previous year. With charging infrastructure scaling exponentially and converging towards more useable standards, this increase in demand will rise further as consequent ownership convenience improves and the favourable unit economics enabled by greater demand increase affordability.

The flywheel effect will kick in, with regulatory pressure and shifting tax incentives contributing to a growing momentum of adoption. So the uptake that we may have observed as a slow shift over the past few years, will now accelerate dramatically. What were early signals of a growing trend towards electric, is now the sound of the volume dial being briskly spun down in a game of musical chairs.

A few years ago EVs were vanity projects. Play things. But in the very near future they’ll be the only pass going for an extended lifetime. We’ll see a lot of household brands fall by the wayside because they were too slow, too caught up in their own hubris to see the signs, spending too much time watching reruns of Top Gear and chuckling along with the three carbon-junky horsemen of the apocalypse.

So if you were an incumbent automaker and you saw this existential challenge rearing its head, you’d have to pull together a pretty compelling game plan. You’d need to peddle your current portfolio of polluting stock, while by contrast cultivating new category behaviour for pure electric products in the market and building a credible commitment to the coming clean age.

This is a tricky conundrum for marques that need to appease their legacy lords of the combustion powertrain, while quietly ushering in the new guard of digital nerds, more stirred by the whir of digital torque vectoring than the rumbling grunt of a V12.

The problem is, of course, by keeping both camps happy, the clarity of their voice and ambitions become polluted with half measures and muddled expressions of intent. What has happened at Honda, as has clearly happened at BMW, Renault, Ford and so on, is this dissonance between its legacy and progressive tribes have resolved in a blurry, inconsequential mess.

Why does Tesla’s unabated, relentless rocket upward seem so unassailable? One, they have a great product; two, leading technology, of course. But at least as important as these first two is the fact that they don’t need to keep looking over their shoulder to make sure the petrolheads haven’t had their noses put out of joint. They can be clear, focused and bold. True revolutionaries. They can take the market with them because they only have one story to evangelise.

The hubris of the auto industry may blindside the incumbents to a rising army of mini Teslas that possess the same unflinching ambitions. Nio, Xpeng, Aiways from China, Lucid, Rivian, Fisker from the US and Polestar from Europe, to name a few, might all be new names for you, but many of these will eclipse the household names of today because they’re more committed, more exciting and much more likely to bang their drum for the virtues of electric than those torn between two camps.

So back to the Honda E. Honda, like all the legacy automakers, needs to pick a path, and it can’t choose both. Mercedes and Volvo have gone on record committing to an electric future, with ambitious release plans to match. Building a strong brand is like architecture. The structural foundations define its potency. The purity of purpose gives oxygen to feed the momentum of change.

This organisational schizophrenia also effects the internal marketing set-up. Can the entrenched CMO, who has spawned a thousand feature-focused car ads for decades, really be expected to cultivate a new modus for an altered world? These tensions are surely reasons why the language, gestures and expressions from these new product categories are so murky, when they should be crystal clear in content and radical in form.

When a path is chosen, ambitions settle into alignment and exciting EVs start rolling off the production line, the revolution can’t stop there. The marketing fraternity needs to also revolutionise the way it communicates these products. And cultivate new categories with passion. To stop selling features and start building out the culture of a new paradigm.

Surely one of advertising’s greatest superpowers is to make things cool and transform the humdrum into the coveted. This is one of adland’s greatest opportunity to contribute to the critical need for an acceleration towards a low carbon economy. Products like the Honda E should provide the necessary stimulus for something truly transformative in marketing terms. And if that’s achieved, then everyone wins.

Nicolas Roope is an independent consultant working with auto brands to shape their product and brand strategies in readiness for the coming golden age of electric cars. He was a co-founder of Poke and creative chairman of Publicis.Poke

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