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Predictions for 2011: Test Driving The Future

What do Nissan, Chevrolet, Toyota, BMW and Honda all have in common?

They all realize that gas is going to go back up to $3 or $4 or $5 a gallon and they’re all releasing electric cars into the marketplace in 2011.

As 2011 gets rolling, I expect we’ll see car marketing getting as futuristic as the cars themselves. We’ve seen glimpses of what’s coming with Ford Fiesta’s two year marketing campaign, and I imagine that as Toyota ramps up it’s Plug-in Prius, we’ll start to campaign that are more and more seamless between offline and online touch points.

I recently had the opportunity to test drive the Nissan Leaf in Austin, TX and while the car itself was definitely cool, the marketing experience left something to be desired.

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For a company that’s essentially marketing “the future” of transportation, their marketing materials seemed trapped in the past.

There was definitely a lot of reading material – namely paper brochures and foam core boards with magazine reprints praising the Leaf and its 100-mile range, but for people like me, who came with ample curiosity and dozens of questions, I was expecting something a little less traditional.

Here are some things I think Nissan and other carmakers will start to employ in 2011, to make a more seamless experience between offline and online touch points.

Opportunity #1: QR codes. There I was at the Nissan Leaf event reading these giant re-prints, thinking to myself, “Wow! I wish I could tell everyone I know about the 100-mile range or how affordable the car is or how futuristic it looks!” But there was nothing for me to scan, to have in my phone, to share with others. As we walked through different tents, they plenty of cool videos with lots of flashy graphics, but no way to hold onto them or share them. I wish I could have pulled that content onto my phone and then redistributed it via my social networks.

Opportunity #2: Capturing Q&As. Like myself, everyone else had so many questions about the car. How many batteries did it have? How long did it take to charge? Where were the charging stations? What if you got into an accident? Nissan could have easily set up a booth at the event, allowing people to ask all of these questions as part of a rolling focus group. That way, Nissan would have a better idea of what people are most concerned/confused about when it comes to electric cars and create even smarter marketing materials.

Opportunity #3: Hands on. Aside from test driving the actual car, the experience was pretty much hands off. For the most part, Nissan pushed information about the car without really immersing you in the other parts of the electric car experience. They had posters of electric cars from the past, but they could have done so much more. They should have allowed people to learn more about lithium ion batteries. Or guess how many lithium ion cell phone batteries it would take to drive the car. Or allow people to plug the car into the electric charging station, since that is just as much of a mystery as the car itself.

That said, they did have one social component that was smart, even if not that original. Participants could record a :30 second video saying what they thought of the leaf and then share that video with friends (to get votes for their video, in order to win a car). But even with that part of the experience, it was just a Nissan Leaf sitting behind the person talking. Nothing too dynamic.

As more electric cars come on the market, it’ll be interesting to see how different brands involve and immerse their potential customers in all things electric.

One thing’s for sure – if electric cars are the future of transportation, and if the future is supposed to be cool, then the marketing of those cars in 2011 needs to be just as cool if not cooler than the car itself.

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