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Automakers, trying to clean up their image as polluters, are increasingly linking up with environmental causes.

The latest example is on display at the Chicago Auto Show through Feb. 19, where Ford Motor Co.'s Ford Division has installed an 856-gallon saltwater aquarium in one of its Explorer sport-utility vehicles. The eye-catching display of tropical fish and marine plants is intended to call attention to the Smithsonian Institution's upcoming Ocean Planet exhibition on ocean ecology.

At rival General Motors Corp., the Cadillac division has formed a partnership with the Nature Conservancy, a 790,000-member organization that manages and owns 1,500 nature sanctuaries. And GM's Chevrolet division is involved in several environmental projects, including the Geo Tree Program. A tree is being planted and maintained on behalf of each Geo purchased, with 450,000 planted so far.

Auto marketers view the programs as a way to build credibility with baby boomers and younger buyers, who are more likely than older consumers to weigh corporate citizenship in making brand decisions.

"The baby boom generation has demonstrated a strong social conscience and an interest in the companies behind a product," said Joseph Kennedy, general director-marketing and product planning for Cadillac.

"Cause marketing isn't a replacement for sound, strategic positioning," said Dan Pearlman, president-CEO of the Pearlman Group, a Los Angeles marketing company that coordinates Chevrolet/Geo Environmental, the banner under which the Geo tree-planting and other programs are administered. "But a well-conceived campaign can enhance brand image and foster consumer loyalty."

For an industry that has often resisted environmental regulations, a green positioning isn't always an easy sell. But car marketers involved in the promotions argue that the industry is becoming more progressive.

"We think the perception [that automakers are hostile to environmental causes] is not exactly correct," said Steve Lyons, Ford Division's general marketing manager.

Ford Division is the corporate sponsor for the Smithsonian exhibit, opening in April and running for nine months before embarking on a four-year, 10-city tour. The $2.5 million sponsorship includes commercials promoting the exhibition on the Discovery Channel and ads in publications of Times Mirror Co., which put together the package.

Cadillac's involvement with the Nature Conservancy is part of GM's five-year, $5 million commitment to the group that began last year. Cadillac helped underwrite and promote a concert fund-raiser organized by Paul Simon in Montauk, N.Y., and has featured conservancy sites in sales brochures and in a DeVille print ad created by D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

The Geo tree-planting program began as a California-only effort in 1989 and went national in '93.

Chevrolet's truck unit began its own environmental effort, Chevy Truck Outdoors, last year to support conservation activities in partnership with the National Fish & Wildlife Federation.M

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