Electric… advertising

Considering we are still in the early days (relatively) of branding and selling electric vehicles, how they are advertised (to evoke desire and consideration) is an interesting angle to observe. Specifically in terms of what features or perspectives are being advertised to evoke interest and/or consideration.

But, given how transformative electric vehicles are (after a century+ of petrol or diesel-powered vehicles), how these new-age vehicles are being sold makes for an interesting study.

Beyond the functional benefits being communicated—range, zero noise, powerful, easy to charge, etc.—the fact that this is a ground-breaking technology offers a lot of potential for interesting story-telling.

Ironically, the most well-known/vocal/news-making electric vehicle brand, Tesla, does not advertise. But a whole lot of other electric vehicles have advertised extensively.

Here is a compilation of some of the most imaginative ads assembled for electric vehicles. These are my favorite ones after having gone through a lot of ads 🙂

Why did I pick these specifically? I think of the transition to EV technology as a magical leap – it’s a big shift for the entire industry, and it will change/upend the automotive industry as a whole forever. That kind of an epoch-making shift deserves—and offers—a dramatic story-telling to communicate the magnitude of change in offer beyond merely positioning the vehicle as a mobility construct. So, quite a few of these brands have imbibed a magical/surreal quality of story-telling that would instantly draw you in, make you curious about what is going on, and draw you in with the final product reveal/mention.

The earliest of such ads is all the way back in 1996!! Yes, 1996! This ad for General Motors’ EV1 was aired only once on NBC during the program ‘ER’. It’s brilliant story-telling for one of the earliest commercially available electric vehicles, and to get all the household electric items to feel excited about its arrival was a wonderfully whimsical touch!

December 1996 – GM EV1
Agency: Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco
Directed by Joe Johnston (of Jumanji-fame), Graphics by Industrial Light & Magic

The next 3 ads are an oddly confounding experience! They are all based on the exact same idea – what if our daily gadgets/machines were running on gas power?

The idea was first made as a students-spec ad in Germany, by Stephan Hilpert in 2010, using the Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car as the product.

2010 – Mitsubishi i-MiEV “A World Without Electricity” – Student spec ad

In May 2011, the very same idea was used in 2 different narratives by 2 different agencies for 2 different electric cars!

May 2011 – Nissan Leaf – TBWA/Chiat/Day – Gas-powered everything

May 2011 – Renault ZE – Publicis Conseil, France: Electric Life

Considering the 3 car brands—Renault, Nissan, and Mitsubishi—are part of the Renault–Nissan–Mitsubishi Alliance, did the combined entity buy Stephan’s student project and use it for Nissan and Renault a year later?

But how does that explain 2 different ad agencies—TBWA/Chiat/Day (belonging to the Omnicom Group) and Publicis Conseil (belonging to the Publicis Group)—taking credit for the same concept, but with different executions?

Is it that the client alliance owns the concept (bought from Stephan?) and the agencies are taking credit merely for the execution? I don’t know!

One of the more controversial and much-discussed early ads was for Nissan Leaf. It showed a Polar Bear’s journey (after losing its ice float) to the city and meeting the owner of a Nissan Leaf. You’ve got to see what happens next.

September 2010, TBWA/Chiat/Day – Nissan Leaf – Polar Bear

The ad was applauded as much as it was criticized because Nissan doesn’t make the Leaf alone, It makes a lot of other gas-powered cars that contribute to that poor polar bear’s habitat destruction (along with many other automobile brands, of course).

In 2014, the Canadian EV brand Smart had an interesting positioning of its tiny city EV car. The ad dramatically pits the small car against mighty gas-guzzlers known for being super fast, on the race track! That would evoke adequate guffaws of course, but then, Smart’s agency BBDO Canada throws in the twist! It’s a clever, practical twist that works perfectly in the home turf of the small car – cities!

June 2014 – Smart, Canada; BBDO Canada – Drag Race

Then there is a series of fantastic ads made by Publicis Conseil, France for their steady client for a long time – Renault ZE (also called Renault ZOE), after ‘Electric Life’ in 2011.

The first of this series is called The Wall and makes strategic use of Paul Simon’s song ‘The Sound of Silence’ to highlight how silent the car is 🙂

December 2014: Renault ZE – Publicis Conseil, France: The Wall

The 2018 Valentine’s Day ad for the same car by the same agency is an animated ode to a postal employee, and focuses on selling the silence of the vehicle again!

February 2018 – Renault ZE – Publicis Conseil, France: The Postman

More recently, the agency has produced 2 ads that sell 2 specific facets – one, range (how long can it travel on a single charge; and two, popularity (‘if so many people are buying this car, it must be really good’ is the logic implied).

The range ad, in particular, is a nice, warm narrative. It uses a real, emotive angle of a son moving out of his home for the first time and the range message is layered within that human element.

March 2021 – Renault ZOE E-TECH – Publicis Conseil, France: Range

March 2021 – Renault ZOE E-TECH – Publicis Conseil, France: Popularity

Amidst all these ads for electric cars, there is precious little interesting advertising for electric bikes/scooters! But 2 recent ads do stand out, and both use a magical/surreal narrative to draw us in. And both had their ideas conceived in-house, with production agencies helping with the execution (and no advertising agency being involved!).

The first is for the Dutch electric bike brand VanMoof, conceived in-house, and produced by the Amsterdam-based production company HALAL, in August 2021. The clever conceit that comes into focus slowly and steadily, and one that keeps us hooked, is that everything is moving in reverse in the ad, except the girl on the VanMoof bike! That works brilliantly to announce that ‘The Future is Forwards’!

The next is by our own Indian e-scooter brand Ather. Even as the other electric scooter brands like Ola or Hero have not taken to mainstream, creative advertising (instead of focusing on functional narratives), Ather had taken a stab at creative advertising late last year, when it got the Bengaluru-based agency Brave New World to create its first-ever TV campaign.

That ad film had the same surreal quality to it, showcasing a dystopian world that is boxy and outdated. And then, everything changes. It was intriguing, but the magic was missing. I felt it was a bit flat in terms of the ‘Why Ather?’ angle, even as the world-building narrative probably did not lead to Ather in any convincing manner.

As if it to make up for that, Ather’s in-house creative team has conceived a 3 film series produced by Nirvana Films!

These are more like it – the surreal quality of the opening shots draw you in immediately, and it could make you smile too (something the earlier film did not, and probably made you feel despondent about the bleak world). And then each film talks about a specific feature that is present in Ather, but not in other conventional bikes. They would be present in rival electric scooters, of course, but Ather’s primary target conversion is for people who have, or considering, petrol cars/bikes, to switch to an e-scooter – this is the largest segment of the audience to go after, sensibly; not necessarily the tiny segment of people who have an existing e-scooter to move to Ather, or the tiny segment that wants to decide between Ather and Ola and Hero, etc.

PS: The creative device used in the Ather ads (of people riding a bike and we do not see the bike at all) reminded me of a 2007 Bajaj XCD DTSi ad. Of course, there is no connection in terms of the story or the theme at all; just that single creative device, that too, used in a totally different context.



2 thoughts on “Electric… advertising

  1. Thanks for sharing this Karthik. The article is a well researched compilation and has your signature style. Curious to know what is your take on “The ultimate electric Drive” which was done by Tata motors Nexon EV to address key barriers to purchase – Range anxiety/Vehicle ruggedness/Ease of charging/Easy to drive.

    While the content piece won some awards and I hear was helpful in making the 10000 EV’s feat achievable, it is always a privilege to hear your candid views on the content. For easy access you can find the playlist here : https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTrpcVfNABeeZ3BqLAckzzt55LFC8FswT

    Disclaimer – This piece wa conceptualised, scripted, produced & post produced by our production studio with no involvement of creative agency.

    1. I remember seeing this. Honestly, I have nothing to say on this series since this is more of a documentary-style communication and not creative product selling 🙂 It serves a very different purpose.

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