The venerable diesel engine has a lot going for it -- but not its image. Carmakers will have to change that to win over U.S. consumers
With federal regulations requiring the availability of low-sulphur diesel fuel in the U.S. by this October, auto makers are promoting diesel models and engines they already sell in Europe for sale in America. There's already a savvy, but small, U.S. audience eager to try diesel models for the high gas mileage they afford. Yet they won't begin to capture anything close to the cachet enjoyed by hybrid cars with the greater driving public -- not until someone comes up with clever, well-funded marketing and advertising of diesel engines.
Truth is, the American perception of diesel engines is that they're dirty, noisy, and problematic. Besides the plumes of stinky black stuff that spew from tractor-trailer vertical exhaust pipes on the highway, it seems that the horrible disaster-prone diesel engines General Motors (GM) foisted on the public in the late 1970s -- they were converted from regular gas engines -- left a dark cloud hanging over diesel for some time. But diesels have changed since then, and it's up to manufacturers to convince U.S. buyers (see BW, 2/20/06, "Diesel Gets Cleaner and Greener").
The auto maker talking up diesels the most is DaimlerChrysler (DCX). That's only natural, since the company is well invested in diesel engines in Europe, where they make up nearly 50% of new-car sales. Mercedes-Benz's system, called BlueTec -- available in the U.S. later this year in the E-Class -- uses a catalytic converter and special filters to reduce harmful nitrogen-oxide emissions to levels more acceptable to the Environmental Protection Agency and the persnickety California Air Resources Board. And the diesel gets 40% greater miles per gallon than Mercedes' conventional gasoline engine.
"A DIRTY WORD."
Chrysler vehicles sold in Europe, such as the Dodge Magnum, Town & Country minivan, and Jeep Liberty, will also offer a version of BlueTec. And it's a short jump to get those vehicles to the U.S., says Joe Eberhard, Chrysler's sales and marketing chief. "We are big believers in diesel as part of the solution in America, but it's a big marketing challenge," explains Eberhard, who plans to spur interest through media relations and events at which consumers can drive the cars and sniff the tailpipe.
Sounds good, but don't forget advertising. Diesel versions of Mercedes, Jeep, and Volkswagen vehicles have always gotten scant ad support, and for pretty good reason: Until now, all three companies could sell all the diesels they could reasonably bring to the U.S. with just a few print ads and direct mailings to the already diesel-savvy consumer. VW, which has long sold diesel Golfs and Jettas, and sometimes New Beetles and Passats, has been by far the perennial diesel leader in the U.S.
But VW doesn't even utter the word "diesel" in ads, calling them instead TDI, as in Jetta TDI. "It's literally been a dirty word in the U.S.," says Volkswagen head of production Wolfgang Bernhard, who was previously chief operating officer of Chrysler Group and championed the introduction of a diesel Jeep Liberty in the U.S.
For all the boosting of diesel done by the Germans, who are well vested in trying to sell the engines they have in Europe to U.S. consumers, what this much-maligned fuel needs to win acceptance from a reluctant U.S. consumer is for the Japanese to put their green imprint on it. Honda Motor (HMC), for one, is poised to help diesel along. Honda says it will bring four-cylinder diesel engines to the U.S. for some of its vehicles (probably the Civic and CRV models), beginning in 2010.
HONDA'S TRACK RECORD.
For those unfamiliar with Honda and what makes it tick, this company is foremost an engine outfit. It's arguably the most brilliant engine company in the industry, so much so that it decided decades ago to build more products -- motorcycles, scooters, cars, generators, lawn mowers, snowblowers, boat engines, and the like -- to provide surer markets for its wonderfully efficient engines.
Honda, which now sells three hybrid vehicles, says it has no plans to roll out any more, that it's not marching to Toyota Motor's (TM) strategy of a hybrid for every Toyota and Lexus it markets. Honda is so green and frugal it has for years turned down its frustrated American colleagues who want Honda to offer a V8 engine for the Honda Ridgeline pickup and Acura RL luxury sedan. Nothing doing. Honda's V6, go the responses from Japan, is plenty of performance for anyone. So, it's significant that Honda is bringing diesel to the U.S. (see BW Online, 9/15/05, "Hybrids or Diesels? Probably Both").
But it's better than that. Honda really knows how to market diesel. That's right. Whereas I have heard ridiculous solutions for making diesel more acceptable to U.S. buyers -- such as adding fragrance to the fuel to make it smell like fresh basil or just-cut switchgrass -- Honda has a track record for successfully advertising diesel the old-fashioned way. At last year's International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France, the top award went to Honda U.K. and its ad agency, Wieden + Kennedy London, for a TV ad for the Honda advanced diesel engine, the 2.2i-CDTi.
A CELEBRATED ARRIVAL.
The ad, first run in 2004, has Garrison Keillor -- host of National Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion and presumably an icon of liberal environmentalists -- crooning through a 90-second animated ad about why hate can sometimes be a positive emotion. "Hate something, change something" is the theme for Honda's diesel commercial, which takes the viewer on a journey through an optimistic animated world of "positive hate." The ad is viewable at www.honda.co.uk/grrrgame/.
The film reflects the story behind the creation of Honda's first diesel in a unique way. Kenichi Nagahiro, the company's chief engine designer and inventor of the celebrated VTEC engine, hated the noise, stink, and dirt associated with diesel engines. When asked to design Honda's first diesel, he refused unless he was allowed to start from scratch.
The animation features cute bunnies, pretty flowers, and rainbows -- all typically associated with positive imagery -- and show their dislike of dirty, noisy, smelly diesel engines by destroying them in exchange for something better. They celebrate the arrival of Honda's new diesel. Throughout the spot, Keillor sings the original folk song, "Can hate be good?" And he sings it in the key of "Grrrrrrrrr."
The fact is, diesel engines are fun to drive. The new crop of turbo-diesel engines boosts the horsepower of the engines. That, combined with the fuel economy and low-end torque delivered by diesel vehicles, should be enough to tempt anyone. And here's a kicker: Diesels can run on all sorts of fuel.
There are, for example, a legion of devoted and quirky diesel owners who run their cars on recycled cooking oil they harvest from take-out Chinese restaurants and KFC outlets. No kidding. It really works if you know what you're doing. Nothing says fun to me like running your car on what smells like General Tso's chicken (see BW, 9/19/05, "It's Easier Being Green").
Anyone contemplating marketing diesel to a reluctant American public needs to gas up a Volkswagen Jetta TDI or Jeep Liberty Diesel at the local Hong Kong Gardens, and go to school on this great Honda ad from London. For all the terrible advertising we see, especially in the auto category, Honda has shown what a wonderful ad can accomplish. And for nasty old diesel -- who'd have thought?