Honda targets hybrid 'blahs' with Insight comeback

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The Toyota Prius gets all the glory, but it was actually Honda that brought the first gasoline-electric hybrid car to the U.S. when it debuted its Insight brand in 1999. Prius arrived in the U.S. a few months later, eventually leaving Insight in the dust. Honda discontinued the Insight in 2014 amid plummeting sales.

Now Honda is giving it another shot, backing its redesigned 2019 Insight with a campaign that seeks to portray other hybrids as boring. The effort, by Honda agency-of-record RPA, is called "Fight Mehdiocrity" and touts the Insight as a good-looking alternative to other hybrids.

On social media, Honda will run GIFs that turn ordinary, boring objects into something more visually interesting. They'll be created by artist Helga Stentzel, who takes a similar approach on her Instagram page.

Honda is approaching the redesigned version as a "brand new completely changed model from the one we had before," says Susie Rossick, assistant VP of Honda Marketing at American Honda Motor Co. Honda kept the moniker, rather than creating a new one, because "we like the name Insight and it works very well for this category."

The campaign plays up the car's styling because research revealed the top turnoff for potential hybrid buyers is ugly design.

While not in the hybrid category, Cadillac took a similar creative approach a couple years ago with an ad that sought to seperate the Escalade from the herd.

Insight has a long road to travel to catch the Prius. While Prius U.S. sales were down 16.2 percent year-to-date through June, Toyota still sold 46,171 of them, after recording 108,662 sales all of last year, according to Automotive News. Insight peaked in 2010, with 20,962 vehicles sold.

The redesigned Insight arrives in a tough-selling market. Total vehicle sales are ediging down from 2016's record pace, and trucks and SUVs—not cars—are dominating, says Autotrader analyst Michelle Krebs. Also, the fuel economy benefits of hybrids don't seem to be carrying as much weight with consumers as they once did.

The Insight must fight for share not only with Prius but with others competitors like Hyundai's Ioniq hybrid and the Kia Niro crossover. Ioniq with its marketing seeks to rise above the hybrid fray, just like Insight: "The world didn't need another hybrid, it needed a better hybrid," states an Ioniq ad that debuted last year and has gotten intermittent play this year, according to iSpot.

Rossick says Honda's goal "isn't really to overtake the Prius. Prius has a lot of brand equity." Rather, Honda wants to lure buyers "that are looking for a really great looking sedan that just happens to be a hybrid." She said that Honda has already sold roughly 850 Insights since sales began in late June, and "we haven't even done any support for it. We are seeing the interest."

The campaign begins this week, but media support will kick into a higher gear in the fall with the arrival of better TV programming options, Rossick says. She declined to reveal spending figures.

Chasing the king
The first two generations of the Honda Insight lived in the shadow of the Toyota Prius, which became a mainstream symbol of vehicle electrification. Honda hopes things will be different with the third generation.
Year Honda Insight* Toyota Prius
2017 3 108,662
2016 67 136,632
2015 1,458 184,794
2014 3,965 207,372
2013 4,802 234,228
2012 5,846 236,659
2011 15,549 136,463
2010 20,962 140,928
2009 20,572 139,682
*Discontinued after 2014 model year
Source: Automotive News Data Center.

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