Guest post: Crossing the Chasm – What is the EV Story for the Early Mainstream?

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By many accounts, the plug-in vehicle industry is a success in its current state of development: To date, the domestic EV market includes five plug-in models available for purchase and over 15,000 early-adopter plug-in drivers, who are some of the most satisfied consumers the auto industry has ever experienced.

But a key challenge remains: What will it take for the EV market to cross the chasm from the early adopter to the early mainstream?

This was the question on everyone’s mind last week at the 26th annual Electric Vehicle Symposium (EVS 26), in Los Angeles, where hundreds of electric vehicle players from the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Asia gathered to learn from one another and get a sense of the state of the EV industry.

I have long been observing the role of the plug-in-vehicle network in shifting the automotive industry toward a cleantech future. This year the discussion shifted from how to build the technology to how to drive consumer demand

Until now the EV market has mainly consisted of early adopters. This small market group is made up of visionaries who strongly believe in the “game-changing” values these new technologies represent. They are less concerned with cost and convenience factors.

But do these same values resonate with the mainstream consumer?

Dean Devlin, the producer of Who Killed the Electric Car? gave a resounding “NO” to this question in his final plenary speech at EVS 26. He cautioned against automakers marketing plug-in cars as “medicine” that is good for society and instead encouraged telling a story that emphasizes their “cool” factor.

In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore writes that unlike early adopters, early mainstream consumers are more pragmatic in orientation and adopt new technologies because they are more efficient and cost-effective than what they are currently using.

Here are three ways to approach this new EV story for the early mainstream:

1.    Plug-in cars are an improvement over conventional gas cars.

Moore tells us that while the early adopter wants change, the early majority wants improvement. Talking about improvements in mpg and overall lifetime savings appeals to the early majority’s sensibility in a way that avoids hype and confusion. Toyota is doing this well with the 2012 plug-in Prius. Its messaging includes the tagline “The hybrid you know and love. Recharged” and mentions that the plug-in model gets an estimated 95 mpg.

2.    Smart people just like you are plugging in.

Moore writes that good references are critical to buying decisions. For an early majority customer, this means citing references that are from other early majority customers. This means telling a story about how plug-in cars solve the needs of everyday drivers — neighbors, soccer moms, NASCAR dads, Republicans and Democrats alike. Tesla aims to do this with the all-wheel-drive Model X SUV, which targets hip moms with an eye for design and efficiency.

3.    Plug-in cars are high-quality, reliable vehicles.  

Moore says early-mainstream consumers buy quality, reliability and convenience. They do not want to debug somebody’s else product. This element of the story stresses that plug-in cars have come of age, technologically speaking. Cumulatively, thousands of customers have driven these vehicles millions of miles over the past year and a half. The EV Project, for example, has installed over 4,600 home chargers in the U.S. and has tracked over 24,000,000 miles driven in these vehicles. While there are still some minor technical hurdles to overcome for a fully-functioning public charging infrastructure, the viability and convenience of home charging is noted by many plug-in drivers as a huge win.

As more cities prepare to accommodate more plug-in drivers and as more plug-in models come on the market, it is the right time to consider a new EV story.

Which of these elements of the story do you think will work best to shift the beliefs of the early mainstream?

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