Want This Car? First, You Need an Electrician

Marketing for Nissan's Leaf Is So One-to-One That the Automaker Is Arranging Home-Wiring Inspections

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When the marketing minds at Nissan said the launch of its electric car Leaf would be different from every other car introduction, they weren't kidding.

Like a typical launch, there's a car to promote, a consumer to entice and a price point ($32,780) to convince potential buyers is fair. But that's where the similarities end. Those who buy a Leaf when it becomes available later this year will be in for quite the one-to-one marketing experience. This is not a car that can be plugged into any outlet: Buyers will have to undergo an electrical education and a visit from an electrician to inspect their home and make sure their wiring is up to snuff -- and a possible upgrade if it's not.

"There will be an individual conversation with every customer that goes through the purchase process for the Leaf," said Mark Perry, director-product planning at Nissan North America, said. "Some of it will be web-based, but it is going to be an individual communication."

The education process starts on the Leaf website, where consumers make their reservations. The idea behind this effort, according to Mr. Perry, is to arm potential buyers with all the information they need to decide whether or not they want to purchase the car.

"The electric car changes your behavior because you have to plug it in and you have to plan your trips; you can't do things spur of the moment anymore, so it takes some time to get them to warm up to the idea of an electric car," said Christopher Cedergren, managing partner at consumer-insight firm Iceology. "But once you explain the technology and its benefits to them, they seem to get over their concerns. [Nissan] will have to spend time and marketing dollars on educating their customers, but it looks as if they are already doing that."

Getting serious
The automaker has started taking reservations for Leaf, which is being introduced initially in Seattle, Oregon, California, Arizona and Tennessee in December. Texas will be added later on. Beginning on April 20, consumers have had to fork over a refundable $99 registration fee to secure a Leaf; Mr. Perry said this helped the automaker identify people who were serious about purchasing the car.

From there, Nissan sets up a home survey with certified electricians identified by the automaker to make sure their garage is plug-in ready. (The installation of the home-charging stations will be done by a company called Aerovironment.) If an upgrade is necessary, potential buyers will get an estimate on the cost. Nissan hasn't yet decided on whether it will charge for the home survey or just for the charger.

"The whole way through this process, the consumer has the final say on what meets their budget and what meets their expectations," Mr. Perry said. "From a consumer and education awareness standpoint, we thought, if we're asking someone to make a decision on the vehicle, they needed to also understand what charge, if any, there would be to get their garage plug-in ready."

Even with those potential hurdles, in the first eight days, Nissan scored 8,000 reservations and hopes to have more than 25,000 by December.

Interest was also stoked by teaser TV ads that depict the wall socket as "the new fuel," the home as "the new filling station" and fully charged battery symbol on an iPhone as "the new fill up." The spots are from TBWA/Chiat/Day, Los Angeles.

Nissan estimates that the standard cost for the installation of the charger and charger itself will be $2,200 on top of the cost of the car. Aside from not having to fill it with gas, the Leaf has a bunch of additional benefits, most of which come in the form of tax credits and incentives. There's a 50% federal-tax credit on the installation component for buyers, knocking the cost down to $1,100. In some states there are additional incentives "that drive the cost of the car down even further," Mr. Perry said, including a $7,500 federal tax credit for eligible buyers that comes with the purchase of the car.

To further ensure the process is a smooth one for consumers, Mr. Perry said Nissan is also working on the local level with mayors, municipalities, utility partners, inspectors and electrical contractors. They include the city of San Francisco, electricity provider Reliant Energy of Houston, the city of Orlando and the Orlando Utilities Commission and San Diego Gas & Electric. Some of Nissan's partners have begun stuffing their billing envelopes with information packets on the Leaf and electric cars; the automaker's site has links to various utility partners around the country.

Frequently asked questions

Mr. Perry said people have a lot of questions, such as how far does it go, where do I get it charged, what are you inspecting in my house, why are you inspecting and what are you looking for.

"A lot of the information is on our website, and there's a lot of video as well," Mr. Perry said. "But it's also going to be very personal. We are trying for a white-glove level of treatment so you understand what's going on every step of the way and what's going to happen next. To arrange for fueling of your vehicle is not something you haven't had to consider before, and now the idea that your gas station is in your garage is a big change. They need to know what to do, and we will walk them through that process if they want us to."

Iceology's Mr. Cedergren already likes what he sees. He said that Nissan has done a great job in building buzz for Leaf and has positioned itself as the leader in electric car technology, so much so that the automaker has the potential to turn Leaf into another Prius. "If the electric car segment takes off, Nissan already has the tiger by the tail," he said.

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