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The Electric Car Branding Trick Even Nissan's Leaf Is Missing

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In the past ten years, environmentally-friendly cars have become a fixture in advertising. First came the Prius. Then BMW claimed its electric batteries boost performance, great for boosting the entire BMW brand. Chevy Volt, an electric hybrid, hypes range, innovation and American values, trying to minimize its differences from traditional cars. Nissan Leaf touts its green credentials, scooping up the ultra-green market.

Leaf's green strategy is working against the Volt: Leafs are outselling Volts by over four to one. Yet even at that, Nissan only sold 1,362 Leafs in August. By contrast, Toyota sold over 30,000 Camry in the same period. The ultra-green sliver market may soon be sated. What's next?

So far, electric car marketers have failed to position themselves against the 5 million+ internal combustion engine (ICE) market in any way but green, leaving that task to the press and consumers. And what is the buzz? So far, the biggest story about the electric car is "range anxiety."

Too many reviews and user stories concentrate on the issue. Is 100 miles enough? When will the recharging stations be up and running? What happens in a bad traffic jam? How long would you have to wait for the special Level 2 Charger permit? Who would ever buy one until all of these issues have been worked out!

That's why when I walked into the garage of my uber-practical friend Jane (not her real name) and saw a brand new Nissan Leaf, I was completely shocked. Her former car was a 4-year-old Lexus. The Leaf seemed to be a step down, both in size and luxury. She supports conservation but not when it interferes with her lifestyle. She spends many weekends at a place 60 miles away, so her 100-mile range wouldn't cover the round trip. This just didn't make sense.

When I gave her a doubting look, Jane said "Just drive it."

Understand, we are not car people. We drive whatever gets us there. Jane's Lexus was low maintenance and had a great GPS. I bought a used 1998 Volvo Coupe for the low price and great sound system.

But when I drove the Leaf, I felt transformed. Suddenly, I was 10 years old, riding my bicycle down a hill without a helmet. Jane turned off the pedestrian-warning beeper and the only noise was the wind and the whine of tires on pavement. I later discovered its design features -- light body materials, soft suspension and steering, double insulation, low adhesion tires and the instant acceleration of an electric motor -- sort of ET-like, suddenly you're going a whole lot faster -- all contribute to the feeling of floating on a cloud.

Why aren't the headlines about what a cool experience it is to drive an electric car? It is such a clear differentiation. Sports cars and Harley-Davidsons are all about the experience. Sure, the electric car is not for those who would miss the growl of an ICE. But fans wax on about the experience, comparing it to a ride in a corporate jet or praising its quiet peacefulness. One ardent Leaf fan called it "insanely wonderful" and told me, "It's the first thing I'm buying when my company goes public." Michael Carmichael writes in the Huffington Post that its acceleration is "...just like the Starship Enterprise."

My favorite comment of all, from the Nissan Leaf Forum: "For now I'm just cherishing the boyish wonder that my Leaf is bringing me. All the cars I owned were a mode of transportation, while the Leaf felt like a toy that I've always wanted."

Now wouldn't that make a great commercial?

Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Times, and many websites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found at http://www.csrhub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on about 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.