The auto makers of the world do a great job of catering to the kind of people who think like they do. Car companies are enthralled with selling parts and accessories to enthusiasts who love their cars. But the factories might find more business opportunities by going after consumers who are not enamored of cars and who don't really trust the auto industry.
Say what, you say? Let me explain.
Every year the car companies and their suppliers develop all kinds of performance parts designed to make their vehicles look zoomier, go faster and corner harder. They sell tires and shocks and blocks and heads and turbos and blowers and all kinds of other components.
They make millions if not billions selling this equipment. And it cements their brand relationship with hotrodders, racers and customizers. It's a major reason why cars such as the Mustang, Corvette, Viper and even compacts like the Civic Si can command a long-term loyal following.
But if you can construct a good business case selling performance parts, why stop with enthusiasts? Why not apply the same strategy to others?
Why not sell parts and accessories to environmentalists and other friend-of-the-earth types that would make their cars cleaner, quieter and safer? These are people who would happily trade off some measure of performance to make their car burn less fuel, spew less emissions and provide an extra margin of safety in an accident. Best of all, they would pay extra to feel like they're going the extra mile to help save the planet.
So what could you sell them? Today's enthusiasts can buy computer chips that will boost an engine's performance by advancing the spark, dumping in more fuel, and playing around with the EGR. Why not offer a chip, call it the green chip, that detunes your engine to boost fuel economy and reduce emissions?
I'm not talking about strangling the engine. But you could improve fuel economy to a noticeable degree simply by adding one second to a car's 0-60 mph (96 km/h) time. And let's face it, you'd be selling it to drivers who probably would never even notice the difference.
While enthusiasts bolt on spoilers and scoops to enhance the appearance of their cars, you could sell the enviro crowd aerodynamic devices to reduce drag and fuel consumption. Heck, you could make these devices out of post-consumer recycled materials to give them more street “cred.” And you could brand these aerodynamic add-ons so the owners could signal fellow motorists that their car is cleaner than everyone else's.
I see a market for new kinds of mufflers and tires that would reduce noise pollution. And aftermarket services that inject structural foam into cavities in the chassis to provide better crash protection. See? It's easy to come up with ideas on how to cater to this crowd.
But don't follow the build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy. You have to aggressively market the benefits by using metrics the enviro crowd will appreciate and yearn to achieve. Just as any enthusiast knows the meaning of “0 to 60” and “quarter mile time” and “top speed,” you'll need new terminology for the clean-car set.
Today's vehicles emit 8 to 10 tons of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) a year. So let's give customers a package that cuts 1 ton of GHGs. That could be a “2,000 pounder.” A half-ton a “1,000 pounder.”
And then market this to them. I can see the ad copy now: “Doing Your Part To Comply With The Kyoto Treaty.”
It may sound silly, but I'm not being facetious. I sense a large audience out there willing to pay more to do their part to save the planet. And don't forget that this industry isn't just about making cars. It's about making money. That's why I say, go for the green.
John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” and “American Driver” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.