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Why’d You Buy That Car?

August 3rd, 2009

The car you drive says a lot about you.  …At least that’s what the vehicle marketing folks would have us believe.  And it’s probably true – as Sperling and Gordon write in their book Two Billion Cars:  “It’s axiomatic in marketing that people value identity over practical considerations in making purchases.  They buy products that reinforce their self-image and symbolize who they want to be.”

Why, then, do people buy hybrids today?  From a financial perspective, they may be the more economical choice when our volatile gas prices swing upward; but if the axiom above holds true, this isn’t really the motivation behind hybrid purchases.  The folks who buy them do so because the car portrays an image of who the driver wants to be.  For hybrid drivers, the message is usually, “I care about my impact on the Earth.”  I’ve heard the term “conspicous non-consumption” several times recently to describe this behavior.

Unfortunately, it’s the techy, greenie, “first adopters” who are the ones who want to portray this image when it comes to automobiles.  As long as that’s true, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and EV’s will never constitute more than a a slight percentage of our vehicle fleet.  How do we overcome this?  We either have to recruit more folks to the “green” movement, or we have to make these cars appeal to more than those who want to conspicuously non-consume.  I expect the latter will be a much easier task than the former…

This idea applies to more than just electrified vehicles; it’s true for small, economical cars as well (a topic which I touched on here).  As long as small cars are largely decontented appliances that send the message, “This is all I can afford,” they won’t compete with the massive “I dominate everything” rolling fortresses that roam the nation’s highways.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if increasing the price of a compact car (while making it more desirable) actually led to increased sales?  MINI has actually done a good job with this, producing a fun, attractive small car that costs a little more than most econoboxes, but actually offers something – a lot – in return.

mini hummer

"What're YOU lookin' at?!"

Now, I’m off to the garage to see what my cars have been saying about me…

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