Prius, not pious (or, hostage rescue in the world of marketing)

Prius_2 This post is about the adoption of the fuel efficient car, specifically the Prius.  I will argue that sales of the Prius (the hostage) are sometimes discouraged by the likes of Arianna Huffington and her supporters (the hostage takers).  I will also argue that this problem can be addressed by the marketer (the hostage rescuer).  To address the problem and the solution we must contemplate diffusion theory, one of the places that anthropology and economics particularly meet. 

Our culture streams with innovation.  But how does "streaming" work? 

Diffusion theories (Simmel in the early days, Rogers in the late) say that innovations "stream" by passing from early adopters to late adopters. Each group has its own motives and its own tolerances for change. Between them, they help draw innovations into the mainstream. 

But how does "passing" work?

Simmel says innovations pass into the mainstream when people imitate  early adopters.  This is the classic operation of the diffusion effect, but there are times when late adopters will not imitate.  This happens when the early adopter flaunts his difference, and rewards himself with self congratulation.  This self-congratulation is read as other-scorn, as if the adopter is saying, "I get it, you don’t."  In this case, the early adopter provokes not admiration but antagonism.  The innovation has been taken hostage.

There is a second case when imitation is not forthcoming, and the innovation is left, in effect, marooned and unassimilable at the far end of the diffusion stream.  In this case, people regard the innovation as puzzling and strange.  Certainly, novelty always has a small current of oddity running through it.  (It would not be novel otherwise.)  But in this case we are talking about innovations that remain opaque, a hostage of another kind.

Simmel’s "imitation" effect does not work in either case.  In fact, the would-be "late adopter" wants nothing to do with the innovation, which remains antagonizing or unsettling.  Or to put this in the language of another marketing model, the innovation is blank of meaning, or inhabited with someone else’s meaning.  Adoption is unlikely.  Captivity is assured.

Marketing to the rescue.  Our job is to find meanings for the innovation that are intelligible, palatable and interesting.  To do this, we could assemble a room full of ad agency creatives.  The other possibility is to see if the early adopters have created meanings other than that of self congratulation.

And this is precisely what was done by Heffner, Kurani, and Turrentine in a recent article on Hybrid Electric Vehicles, specifically the Prius.  H, K and T interviewed 25 Prius owning family, almost all of them in California.  (See the link below for the article and a PDF of the article.  I am still in Warsaw and a little under the gun, timewise. Otherwise, I would break it out for you.) 

Some of the results were predictable.  Some owners drove their cars as a badge of environmental virtue.  And predictably some of them intended their cars as a repudiation of the SUVs with which they shared the highway, a kind of "I’m environmentally sensitive and you’re not" kind of message.  (Actually, sometimes the Huffington driver can send a more strident message, something closer to, "I’m environmentally sensitive, and you are an enemy of the planet.") This is of course precisely the problem, and the thing that antagonizes the late adopter and maroons the innovation. 

But Heffner, Kurani, and Turrentine found respondents cultivating other, less divisive meanings.  For one respondent, the Prius was a compelling choice because it meant that America would sent less money overseas, and gain independence from foreign governments hostile to the US.  This same respondent believed that his choice of a Prius "sent a message" to the American manufacturers of cars, chiding them for having been too slow in developing hybrid technology.  It was also a way to punish the American gas lobby. 

This consumer created meaning moves briskly away from environmental issues into political ones, and there is, I believe, a much larger, constituency for this meaning than there is for the environment.  The marketer could take this up and run with it.  Certainly there is something a little Alice-in-wonderland about promoting Japanese cars on the grounds that it’s good for American interests.  But, hey, it’s for the planet, man. 

A couple was enamored of how quiet the Prius was at low speeds.   They called their "stealth mode."  This is really lovely.  This is a couple out for a little drive, noticing something about their car, reaching for metaphor, and coming back with a little bit of drama that makes driving more fun.  It is for them moment the kind of play that couples share.  (Pam and I have constructed a life out of these little moments, as every couple does.)  But in the right agency hands, this is the stuff on interesting creative, which creatives could "air lift" the Prius out of Huffington self righteousness with a single 30 second spot. 

A third consumer saw his Prius as the perfect car for someone in the technology field, in his phrase, a "geek-a-rific" car.  This consumer was concerned that the Prius would identify him as a "tree hugger" and took pains to emphasize the technological advantage of his car by driving it with his foot to the floor.  Splendid.  In this case, the consumer is actively engaged in the very problem that concerns the marketer.  This may not be the best way of addressing the issue, but it reassures us that our strategy is not altogether mistaken. 

There are several points to make here.

1) That the diffusion effect sometimes comes undone.  Imitation is not forthcoming.  The early adopter has hijacked the the innovation, so to make it cosa nostra (our thing), a party to which others are not invited.  Would-be late adopters are antagonized.   Adoption is slowed. 

2)  When this happens, it is up to the marketer to intervene.  Good ethnographic research will reveal other meanings that "work" for the innovation, but do not have the effect of antagonizing the consumer. We are looking for the acts of symbolic "re-production" with which the consumer has reimagined the innovation.  Now, the communications task is to transship these meanings to the would-be late adopter, running an end-run around the cosa nostra, Huffington gang. 

3) I believe this hunt for palatable meanings is the unofficial practice in marketing.  Certainly, it is a part of  my professional practice as a consulting anthropologist.  I spend a lot of time listening to active consumers talk about the ways they have engaged with the product or brand, that these meanings might be build back into the product or the brand. 

4) So there is a way in which marketers honor this strategy in a de facto way.  But it’s not clear to me that theory has caught up here. Mind you, diffusion theory has been shocking neglected, both in the b-schools and the social sciences.

5) We might think of this as an act of hostage rescue.  What we are doing is saving the innovation from the meanings lavished upon them by the early adopters.  In a way this is fully consistent with the consumer centric mission of marketing, and the conviction that our products and services can’t be "about us" but must instead be about the consumer.  Except in this case, when we say it’s "not about us," we are also struggling to make sure the product or service is "not about them," i.e., the Huffingtons of the world.

6) Come to that, I wonder if this sort of thinking might not prove useful for the Democratic party and it’s presidential hopefuls.


Heffner, Reid, Kenneth S. Kurani, Thomas S. Turrentine.  2007.  Symbolism in Early Markets for Hybrid Electric Vehicles.  Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Dais, Research Report UCD-ITS-RR-07-01. here.

Last note:

For those following my travels in Europe, I leave Warsaw today for Kracow, I think it is.  On the other hand, it could be Lodz.  I will let you know when I get there. 

14 thoughts on “Prius, not pious (or, hostage rescue in the world of marketing)

  1. Pingback: University Update

  2. Zeus Jones

    Great post and thanks for the link to this study too.

    However, I would propose an alternate interpretation which is that the success of the Prius (and other hybrids) is directly linked to the fact that it allows owners to create multiple (and sometimes contradictory stories or) meanings around it. It is this fact that has enabled the Prius to break out of its initial early-adopter markets and into very different social circles. Certainly it has gone further and has assumed very different symbols than Toyota initially intended but that’s its strength in a fragmented society.

    As a marketer therefore, I would see my job as enabling these different meanings to blossom rather than protecting, controlling or channeling them.

  3. Peter

    What a superbly-provocative post, Grant.

    One way to understand the diffusion of new products/services is to ask why is it not the case that everybody adopts the innovation all at once, right at the start. One reason, of course, is that it takes time for potential adopters to learn about the new product/service/idea (aka innovation): the spread of information about the innovation has to precede the spread of its adoption. Similarly, for physical products and services, distribution channels need to be in place before adoption.

    But your post adds another element: It is not only the innovation itself which carries a message to potential adoptors, but the very fact of its early adoption, its (perceived) speed of adoption, and who is (perceived to be) doing the early adopting. To my mind, these additional messages can be understood as meta-messages, sitting in layers above (and possibly amplifying or possibly cancelling or contra-acting) the bottom layer holding the message of the innovation itself.

    Marketing departments, if they worry about messages at all, IME, focus mainly on the message in the bottom layer, the one holding the message of the innovation. What you are seeking to understand and to manage, Grant, are the contents of the upper layers, their relationships to one another, and the way in which each new adopter changes these layered contents as he or she adopts and uses the innovation. WOM, for instance, may be primarily about sharing information on the upper layers, and not about the contents of the bottom layer at all.

    Thanks immensely for these powerful ideas!

  4. steve

    This hostage-taking analysis is right on. It reminds me of your post about the Red program for promoting aid to Africa–I argued that Red would get taken hostage immediately and turn off those with more hard-headed, cynical, or ironic self-images. The Prius is in the same boat.

    Interestingly, the Civic hybrid, which has the same body as the regular Civic and so is not recognizable at a glance, should be largely free of these fraught meanings, for good and ill. On balance, it looks like the effect of not being a showy purchase has hurt the Civic hybrid compared to the Prius.

  5. Grant

    Peter, thanks for your comments on the Prius post. Much appreciated. I guess the first question, and I should have phrased it this way, is whether the early adopter is in the american phrase, “too cool for school.” No one accused the early adopters of the PC (when it was a mail order kit) of being so. Indeed, these people are still dismissed as geeks. Maybe this is (sometimes the differences) between things fashionable and technological. Thanks again. Best, Grant

    p.s., this response breaks from my new policy of replying to ontributors directly (by email) instead of here.

  6. cameron

    Not really an appropriately sophisticated comment, but there was an
    uncanny resemblance between some of your nuanced comments
    about green consumer identity construction blocking emulation and
    the rather less nuanced commentary provided on the same issue by
    a recent South Park episode, the gist of which is captured in this
    Wikipedia entry (that there is an entry is itself vaguely thought-

  7. Todd

    Grant, thank you for the thought-provoking post and the link to the study. The thing I’m most curious about is what happens after early-adopters have lived with their purchase for some time and the early-adopter status essentially wears off as the item becomes more mainstream or dwindles in its significance.

    Do these early-adopters move on to “the next big thing” or do they form attachments to the item over time, slowly building a relationship with it and keeping it around as a result?

    Humans seem to be hard-wired to anthropomorphize the objects in their lives, and having interacted with several Prius owners recently, they all seem to have projected certain personality traits onto their vehicles, and their cars are now seen as extensions of their own personalities. Most (all 3 of them) see themselves handing the Prius down to their children, much like a sentimental toy or book from their youth. How do these relationships and attachments factor into the long-term adoption of a product/service?

    Thanks again for an intriguing post …

  8. Peter

    I was just re-reading David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest”, about the people who advised JFK and LBJ on Vietnam. One of his profiles is of Robert S. McNamara, who had been CEO of Ford before becoming Secretary of Defense. According to Halberstam, McNamara never understood how people could become emotional about cars or car purchases (or indeed, about anything else). Apparently, he pushed Ford to develop low-price, low-feature, minimally-designed cars, thinking all the time that consumers were nothing more than dessicated calculating machines. He did not understand the appeal of tail fins, so presumably he would never have got pious Prius owners.

    I find it hard to believe that someone with so little understanding of normal human emotions could have gone so far so fast in the motor industry.

  9. Deborah M

    Some thoughts for Todd:

    Buying a Prius early (purchased in 2000, delivered in 2001) was for some of us an obvious way to reduce our contribution to air pollution. The fact that our gas consumption plummeted was a bonus.

    The Toyota ad campaigns that followed several years later (featuring the Prius green leaf) were of interest in an after-thought kind of way, and felt affirming.

    I developed a low-level fondness for my car because it was quiet and small; and I enjoyed the in-group signaling (thumbs up, waves, big grins) that Prius drivers engaged in for the first few years. That reminded me of being a little girl driving with my father in one of the first group of Volkswagons in Canada and watching other VW drivers signal us.

    From 2001 on, depending on what city I was in, there were lots of Prius or none. That was always interesting and made me wonder whether it was a factor of distribution/supply or consciousness – or both. I sold my Prius when I moved to DC this year because now I walk everywhere or take the metro. Don’t miss it. Flex car provides transportation when I need to get out of town.

    Maybe that’s moving onto the next big thing; hadn’t considered that.

  10. Susan Mazur-Stommen

    As a Californian, may I also point out the odd material fact that the State has run out of ‘hybrids allowed in the carpool lane’ stickers, which allow one person to drive in lanes meant for three.

    Cars like the Prius which possess the (still valid) stickers are commanding a premium for this reason. A little bit like the old joke that a person is just a zygote’s way of making another zygote.

    There is another level to be explored here when you supposedly buy a car to help the planet, but really use it to fly down the HOV lanes. (And believe me, as someone with the transponder in my small-but-non-prius car, you DO feel smug bypassing all those people stewing in the smog).

  11. Cody

    Until you have seen the Southpark episode dealing with the clouds of “SMUG” you are in no way qualified to speak on this subject. I’m sorry, it’s just a matter of fact.

  12. Ken Erickson

    You are right, Grant, and I’m not sure why diffusion has not been re-theorized. I do remember, however, the reason why diffusion fell out of fashion way back when. It was used too often to explain why some cultural elements are found across a wide area, yet it denies the possibility of independent invention. (Think Levi Strauss and structurally similar myths across the americas and beyond, perhaps all related so some biogenetic or linguistic structure, an interesting counter to diffusionist explanations.)

    After all, diffusion as a concept was meant to explain how technology moved around the globe, from culture to culture, not for understanding consumer products in a capitalist context. Time for us to re-theorize it a bit.

    It strikes me that saying innovations stream from early adopters to late adopters doesn’t explain anything at all. It says some folks start doing (or buying) something first, then others do likewise. Where’s the theory in that? The question is why are some things adopted at all. You have an answer in the negative case, here, when some drivers seem to be in a huff(ington) thus provoking an anti-adoption response.

    The important point for me in your post (and subsequent comments) should not be a new one, if we are doing our jobs as anthropologists in the world of goods. That point is, for the umpteenth time, that people write new and often unexpected meanings on things as they move thorugh exchange systems. This should be basic. It seems, however, that most marketers still see a direct and “natural” relationship between the intended meaning (or, if you like, function or use) of a product and what consumers actually do and understand.

    Maybe its when meanings get hooked on to larger and more fixed brand menaings that products start having trouble. I’m thinking here of the Cobalt by GM. It may be tunable, fast, and cheap, but its still not a Honda. Its still an American car by GM. And everyone seems to know what THAT means.

    Time for me to go read some Simmel and find the theory in it! Nice post, Grant.

Comments are closed.