Two different car companies are taking similar approaches to promoting green technology.

While corporate giants, consumer goods packagers and the service industry are all trying to find their greener side, a fierce battle for the environmentally-conscious consumer is being waged in the automobile segment. The stakes are huge—according to J. D. Power and Associates, hybrid vehicle sales are projected to grow to over half a million vehicles a year by 2011. Toyota, which already established itself as the hybrid market leader several years ago with its groundbreaking Prius, continues to build on its popularity while struggling General Motors plays catch up. But as the number of new cars rolling off the assembly line with hybrid labels attached to them increases, the automakers are forced to find innovative ways to reach consumers and include them in their brand-building campaigns.

Saatchi & Saatchi LA, which oversees the Toyota account, takes the car company's already loyal following to the next level by creating an online "community center." The site lets hybrid owners create a profile containing information such as the number one reason he or she bought a hybrid, how many miles have been driven in the car and what color they chose. The information is then displayed in colorful graphs and interactive pages showing real-time information.

As Harvey Marco, executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi's LA office, explains, the reasons why consumers are buying hybrid vehicles aren't as obvious as they might seem. "The inspiration behind the website was that within this community there are diverse reasons why people drive hybrids," says Marco. "It's not always for environmental reasons—a lot of the time it's for personal reasons like saving time or driving in the carpool lane. So the website is driven by celebrating people's passions and reasons for this technology."

"We're taking the Prius and using it as the poster child for the hybrid movement and the technology that comes from it," continues Marco. "And that is the spark we want to keep on the surface of all of this when dealing with the campaign."

In the six months that the site has been live, over 12,000 users have registered online. Sales have increased among Toyota's hybrid vehicles, and the next step will be a stronger push into the youth market. But in keeping with the environmental movement's origins, Marco feels that it's important to let the consumer drive the market, both figuratively and literally, and not let it become a battle between car makers over who's greener.

"I think where a lot of companies fall down is, being green is what they always defer to, and it kind of becomes an executional battle between who can out-green the next guy," says Marco. "The cool thing about the direction we're going is, it is bigger than just being green. It's bigger than just the advertising campaign. It works at a grassroots level at dealerships and with the consumer."

While Toyota has become a leader in the hybrid movement, over at General Motors, the story is quite different. Though still the world's largest automaker, GM has seen its overall market share quickly erode as Toyota has shown a significant increase. On top of this, well-publicized missteps like spending heavily on SUVs while gas prices continued to rise have forced GM to shift its strategy toward the fledgling hybrid market. Most of the marketing communications lately have been built around creating awareness around their newer, more fuel-efficient models.

At GM's Saturn division, the carmaker unveiled an interactive display at Wired NextFest this past fall that featured a large video billboard, holographic images and kiosks touting its new eco-friendly image. Saturn's agency Goodby, Silverstein and Partners (which no longer holds the account) wanted to use the event as a platform to establish Saturn as GM's progressive and affordable brand.

"The nice thing about Saturn is its unique spin on its hybrid technology," says Will McGinness, creative director at Goodby, Silverstein and Partners. "Hybrid technology is still fairly expensive, and in a weird way it's still kind of an elitist technology. So we wanted to focus on the democratization of hybrid technology. The brief was to talk about the company's hybrid technology, so our creative strategy was to talk about how Saturn was bringing it to the people. And that's what we centered the exhibit around."

Along with showing the car and educating the consumer, a 50-foot video wall allowed people to enter their reasons why hybrid technology was important and what it meant to them. For each answer, a virtual blade of grass would grow on the screen with the user's thought attached to it. The wall also reacted to movement by creating shapes and shadows as people walked by, all in an effort to make the consumer feel like he or she was part of the exhibit.

Says McGinness, "The display was an education thing done in an interesting way using never-before done technology. And NextFest was the perfect place to do that."

As all auto manufacturers shift toward hybrid technology, ads promoting their eco-friendliness may lose their effectiveness with the consumer down the road. But for now, McGinness believes that the market for environmentally conscious advertising is far from oversaturated. "I don't think there's enough," says McGinness. "It's the future and the more the better."

To read more about Democracy on Wheels, pick up a copy of the spring issue of one. a magazine.

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