For some companies, the ongoing financial crisis will be fatal, but for others, it may turn out to be a historical opportunity to re-define themselves. When weak brands disappear, others can fill their niche. Honda, for one, seems to be one of the first car makers to seize the opportunity that the industry’s re-structuring is providing. “Where we want to be by 2015 is the environmental leader. I mean that in a credible sense, not a greenwash sense,” Chris Brown, the head of marketing for Honda Motor Europe, told The Guardian. Which is easy to say, although Brown says Honda does support an eco-rating system to prevent misleading environmental advertising claims. But the first step in this branding conversion was announced last week, when Honda said it would be terminating its Formula One activities and re-assigning its F1 engineers to work in eco-technology. Egads! Is Honda about to put all that talent towards becoming the car for the dour, anti-car league? Honda is directing its $150m+ ad budget for Europe and Africa towards addressing this question. As Brown puts it, “We want to change the conversation completely. At the moment everything is heavy-handed, preachy and overwhelming. We want it to be positive, optimistic, joyful, powerful.”
Making Greeniness (Treehuggism?) a car company’s main focus might sound radical, but I actually think it is eminently sensible. Most people are not like us: they don’t feel they need a sporty, luxurious or ostentatious car. A sizeable minority wants to drive a pleasant, reliable, responsive vehicle that has a small-as-possible ecological impact. In the past, Volvo may have tried to occupy this space in the car-driver’s mindset, but was too inept in the follow-through. Toyota currently defines “follow-through” when it comes to hybrids, but at what cost? Premium-gargling pistonheads will feel regret when a former sports brand re-defines its focus to cater to Bobos. From a branding point of view however, focus is king. And if those out-of-work F1 guys are working on the CR-Z, the “positive, optimistic, joyful, powerful” stuff might just have a chance.