That's the question Ford faced when it decided to challenge Prius, a name which is becoming synonymous with hybrid cars, by building a car that will come only in hybrid or extended-range electric versions in the U.S. – the C-Max.
"How do you launch a new nameplate against your competitor, which is the Kleenex of hybrids?" said Amy Machesney, marketing manager for the C-Max.
Ford thinks it's found the answer, unveiling a marketing push this past weekend, which uses an old Italian cartoon character, "La Linea." The ads show the simple line character happily reacting to a line-drawn C-Max.
"The marketing is charming, it's whimsical," said Matt VanDyke, director of U.S. marketing communications for Ford. Hybrid buyers, he said, like upbeat messages because they tend to be more optimistic about the future.
The C-Max ad campaign also includes a web portion, which has jokey videos called "The Hybrid Games", which put the Prius and the C-Max head to head in various activities, like passing a big truck on the highway.
La Linea was a pop culture hit in the 1970s, seen in 50 countries. It involves a small, drawn character who speaks gibberish. He yells at an unseen animator, whose hand sometimes appears in the screen and "helps" the character by drawing new surroundings.
Although the original creator of La Linea, Osvaldo Cavandoli, died in 2007, his studio did the animation for the C-Max commercials, drawing each frame by hand.
"The fact that each cell has to be hand-drawn lends a certain warmth to the animation," said Brad Hensen, creative director of Team Detroit, Ford's advertiser behind the campaign. Other animation the company considered for the ad was "too fluid, too slick," he said. "Life isn't that way. Being more real is another way this campaign truly reflects the vehicle."
The hybrid C-Max, which starts at a base price of $25,995, began hitting dealer showrooms in September, and the automaker sold 968 of them last month, which was more than Ford executives expected before the ads started to build awareness, VanDyke said.
Buyers are increasingly open to purchasing hybrid cars, VanDyke said. One in three car shoppers said they would consider purchasing a hybrid. Still, the gas and battery cars only make up a sliver of overall U.S. sales, about 3 percent year to date, according to web site HybridCars.com.
VanDyke said the automaker hopes it will win over hybrid customers by offering a car that's more powerful than Prius models, offers nicer interiors and features, and gives drivers a smoother driving experience.
The car can go up to 62 miles per hour on electric power alone, a huge increase over other hybrids, which often lose battery power around 20 miles per hour, when the gas engine kicks in. The car is expected to get 47 mpg in city and highway driving.
"In the U.S., there's an unmet need. People don't feel safe passing a truck on the highway, or getting on the on-ramp," VanDyke said. The C-Max, he said, is different. "If we can get this on their shopping lists, which we're very confident the advertising can do, we're sure people will like it."
In a few months, Ford will bring out the C-Max Energi, a version of the car that runs on pure electric power for about 20 miles before a gas motor kicks in to keep the car going until the next charge-up. That car competes against the Toyota Prius Plug-in extended range electric, as well as the Chevy Volt. The idea behind that technology is that drivers who take advantage of electricity being cheaper than gasoline will never have to worry about running out of power, because the gas motor on board keeps powering the battery until it can be recharged. Realistically, it means that C-Max drivers will be able to drive 40 miles per day on cheap electricity rather than $4.50-$5.50 per gallon gasoline.