Exclusive: Think Reveals City Marketing Strategy for Its Small Electric Car

By · November 15, 2010

Think City

The Think City will sell to private customers for just under $34,000, beginning in mid-2011.

Michael Lock, the Chief Marketing Office hired by Think in August, has no illusions that the two-seat Think City all-electric car will become a major seller across the United States. And he doesn’t believe the Norway-based company can or should compete head-to-head against Nissan, General Motors or other major auto companies for EV customers.

But what Lock has is absolute clarity about the Think brand. “We see ourselves as an urban city car specialist,” he told me in an hour-long conversation last week. This decision to market the Think City very specifically as a car for city dwellers, mostly in hip green-leaning locations like San Francisco and New York City, reflects a refreshing honestly about what Think’s small EV is and isn’t.

“We are not insisting this is a straight replacement for everybody for their internal combustion engine car,” Lock said. He believes the Think City will most often be a second or third car for urban families. “It’s not the car that you want to do 200 miles in a day on. This is a car that’s short, light, compact, easy-to-drive, has a 100-mile range, and in cities where there is congestion and infrastructure for charging, our car makes a lot of sense.”

Lock also revealed some of the previously missing critical details of the rollout—most notably the price: just below $34,000 before incentives. He confirmed that 300 pre-sold Think City cars will be delivered to fleets in Indiana and Maryland before the end of this year. By the middle of next year, Lock said, Think will complete its assembly plant in Elkhart, Ind. and offer the first units to private customers.

Lock said that Think will sell just 2,000 to 3,000 cars in 2011 via three to five branded stores in highly targeted city locations. The stores will probably be located in Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City, Washington, DC and Indianapolis, near where the company will assemble the cars and where generous consumer incentives will be available.

Competing Against Majors, In Cities

The Think City will find those 2,000 to 3,000 customers, according to Lock, if it's positioned as a city car rather than an all-purpose vehicle, like the similarly priced Nissan LEAF. What are the advantages for urban drivers? First, the Think City is small, only a foot longer and a few inches wider than a Smart ForTwo. “I have a whole list of cities, where there is hub of urban population who are saying I want utility, cleanliness, ease of use, and I want a low stress experience.” He said the Think is also quick and quiet, and has great visibility (via a large glass rear door) for parking, reversing, and darting about town. The car’s plastic-panel body is scratch and ding resistant. “The last time I looked, urban driving has become a contact sport,” Lock said.

Think City

The Think retail experience will reflect the positioning of the car as a smart and green alternative for urban dwellers. “We are working on a rollout model, which will position Think as a 21st century electronic brand, more than an automotive brand,” Lock said. “We think we’re ready to engage a new generation of customers.”

Think is planning to open branded retail stores in downtown locations with high foot traffic. The primary mission of the stores will be to open dialogue and education about electric cars. “People are looking for a different experience than the traditional automotive dealer row with piles and piles of inventory of cars, and sharp sales practices,” Lock said.

Moreover, because production numbers will be modest, Think’s sales strategy can focus on establishing brand loyalty to a small core group of urban evangelists. “We are not in a sales scramble,” Lock said. “What we want to do is introduce the brand, and make sure it’s trusted and synonymous with being independent from the big OEMs (original equipment manufacturers).”

In fact, Lock believes the fever pitch of EV marketing is potentially dangerous and undermines trust with customers. He said that Think’s large electric car competitors are “caught between trying to communicate that the customer is going to save the planet by buying this car at the same as saying you can throw away your normal car because this is shiny and new.” He questioned the 100-mile range claims of competing cars that are much bigger and heavier than the Think City, which also promises 100 miles. He doesn’t see EVs as a replacement for most gas-powered cars yet. “It’s essential to treat people with some respect,” Lock said, “and let them work out whether it’s for them or not.”

There’s a lot riding on Think’s urban marketing strategy, considering the company’s 15-year history of making electric cars. “We don’t want to get left in the wake of the big OEMs striding in, and crushing everybody with their jackboots,” Lock said. “It would a terrible shame if we weren’t relevant just as EVs became relevant.”

Comments

· · 4 years ago

The Think City seems like a cute car and could very well succeed as a low-production-volume EV answer to the SmartForTwo. $34K isn't cheap, but Think's marketing strategy might actually work. I'm rootin' for them!

· · 4 years ago

I agree, abasile. Considering all the factors, their strategy makes a ton of sense. I would love to see these cars proliferate in those targeted cities.

· TD (not verified) · 4 years ago

Definitely if you live in a city, smaller is better when it comes to parking. It can be comical watching people drive their behemoth SUVs around a city looking for a place to park. Even parking garages can barely accommodate them.

I think it would make sense for Think City to work with large cities across the US to give preferential treatment for parking to smaller cars. They simply take up less space so should get a break on parking fees. Smaller spaces means more cars can be accommodated.

· · 4 years ago

I wish there were some way to block this embarrassment from entering the US. It only serves to confirm all of the negative stereotypes that have been propagated about electric vehicles.
It's minimal utility will only allow it to replace vehicles that don't consume very much oil or produce very much pollution since they don't go very far anyway. Even worse, about the only vehicle it can really replace is a bicycle and I hardly see that as any improvement for society.

· Jill (not verified) · 4 years ago

Brad,
Thanks for the informative article. I was glad to see the cities listed. Articles written earlier this year listed Chicago as tied for 3rd as best city for the Think City, so I'm glad Think is still planing on a mid-west dealership. Plus Indianapolis is closer to my St. Louis home than Chicago, yea.
I've read that Tesla buyers need to live in the city of a dealership, but Myers Motors buyers can live in any city and your local mechanic is welcome to call Myers if he/she needs advice. Did Michael Lock say whether buyers need to live in the city of a dealership?
Your article mentions "marketing strategy" and selling 2-3,000 cars in 2011. They should be able to sell that many cars with little marketing.
I for sure want to buy a Think City. I'm having an EV charging station installed in my garage this year. The charging station tax credit expires Dec. 31, 2010. I hope I can buy my Think City in the mid-west in 2011. I don't want to have an expensive charging station being unused for years.

· · 4 years ago

@ex-EV1: I think I understand your sentiment, since the Think City does not have features that folks commonly expect from a "real" car, such as the ability to drive 80 mph on the freeway, carry five people plus cargo, and travel more than 100 miles. None of us want electric vehicles to get pigeonholed as little more than golf carts, for instance. After all, there is a great deal of ignorance out there, even with respect to hybrids such as the Prius.

However, I don't think we need to worry. It isn't as if the Think is the only semi-affordable EV coming on the market; the LEAF and the Volt are more like "real" cars. Used for what it's good at, the Think can be quite attractive. I wouldn't buy one for the LA freeways. But for denser cities with very limited parking, colder climates, and much time spent at traffic lights, small EVs seem very practical. If public transportation and bicycling worked for all urbanites, then there wouldn't be traffic congestion problems. In addition, as some folks in Switzerland can now attest, the Think with its low mass should also be good for zipping around mountain resort areas. Let people appreciate it for what it is.

· · 4 years ago

Jill - I can't say for sure, but I think you might be able to work something out with Think. Michael Lock said that his goal is establishing the best possible customer relationships--and an enthusiastic owner like you would certainly be desirable.

ex-ev1 and abisile - The Think City will have 100-mile range. Agreed that it's a niche vehicle, but maybe one that can occupy a separate track from the other EVs going on sale. Maybe somehow it can be seen as complimentary to the overall market.

· · 4 years ago

Thanks for your quick response Brad. I'm now more comfortable about installing my EV charger soon.

· Jake (not verified) · 4 years ago

I'm a DC resident, and I'm really happy that we're going to be a target market for Think. I drive to work despite being a bicycling enthusiast and living within 1/2 mile of a Metro stop, it's not that I don't care, but I live and work at the ends of two separate lines, requiring a train transfer downtown, twenty-thirty minutes of walking (not that I mind the excercise) and an extra 45 minutes of commute time. The Think City would work very well as my daily commuter, although my wife would still have to drive a traditional ICE car as we go on 200+ mile trips fairly regularly. Unfortunately, the price tag is still an issue, even after Federal incentives. Financailly it would make more sense to keep my 23mpg subaru going until it finally quits.

· · 4 years ago

@Jake: I understand about financial considerations. My wife and I try to manage our finances conservatively, and for that reason prefer not to pay the cost premium associated with new cars. Our current thinking (which has evolved) is that we will wait at least a year or two, and consider purchasing a used EV, perhaps from one of the rental car companies. Or wait a bit longer, and splurge on a new EV with more range. In the meantime, we purchased a used 2010 Prius ($17,900+tax), which gets 50 mpg (even in the city) and can be sold for close to what we paid for it if needed. Taking intermediate steps is not a bad thing!

· · 4 years ago

@Jill,
FWIW, anyone can buy a Tesla if they live in the US (even Hawaii) or Europe and Tesla will provide support (Japan too, I think). There is some extra charge for service out of the area to cover their mobile repair service but I don't know how much it is.

· Mike Nielsen (not verified) · 4 years ago

I have to admit that trying to choose between a Think City and a Nisssan Leaf has been made a no-brainer by the $34,000 price. I saw the little Jay Leno test drive and Q&A with the Think marketing VP and I assumed that such a small car would come in under $30,000 given its size and plastic body construction. Instead, we have a price that exceeds the Leaf, costs a lot more with comparable options and really has nothing going for it other than being tiny. It is like falling in love with a concept and accepting a reality that falls far short. I don't know if Nissan is subsidizing the US market with higher prices in other places, but clearly the Leaf is a much better buy for every consumer, city or country mouse.

· · 4 years ago

@ex-EV1 driver
I was wrong. Maybe what I read was the Tesla couldn't be service by a non-Tesla-technician, which wrongly lead me to believe you needed to live in a city with a Tesla store. Thanks for helping me clarify. I just did a Google search and found out about Tesla's impressive mobile repair service you mentioned. Thanks.

· · 4 years ago

@Jill,
They definitely don't recommend (or warranty) work done by anyone except Tesla technicians, except of course, for tires.
Service is definitely going to be a challenge for any new company trying to sell electric cars though since the average mechanic doesn't know how to work on them yet.
I heard a rumor that Mitsubishi was looking at having Best Buy's Geek Squad appliance service fleet take care of their iMiev since it is more like a washing machine than a gas car.

· EVolution (not verified) · 4 years ago

I really like Th!nk's approach to the US market in that they are not trying to go head to head against the OEM's nor traditional ICEs, they are looking to create an alternative transportation solution.
What Th!nk needs now is some innovative financing and sales initiatives to educate consumers not only on their product but on their vision of an alternative transportation solution.
I am thinking municipal based or company based car share initiatives in the vein of a University town like Davis California and companies like Google. This may not be the car you own just the one you drive.

· Anonymous (not verified) · 3 years ago

The Th!nk is being produced in Indiana and powered by batteries made here as well. I recently attended the Th!nk first delivery of a dozen vehicles to the IN Department of Natural Resources. These vehicles will be used primarily for security runs in our state parks. I was fairly impressed with the cars, as I was able to photograph and sit in them.

The Th!nk is clearly not for everyone! It is small and only seats two people. But the finish (particularly on the interior) is quite nice, and the overall design is very "cute." I do agree with others however that it is far overpriced. It should come in closer to the $20k mark, before incentives. That is what I would consider paying for such a vehicle if I were considering one. For the record, I am not; a two seater isn't practical for my family of three. Th!nk does have plans for a four seater in 2012.

I wasn't able to drive it, so I can't compare it to the Smart EV, which I was less than impressed with. Overall, I think the vehicle is a nice addition to the electric options we are suddenly faced with. For some, a cute, plastic, two-seater with a rockin' glass hatch design will be just the thing. For most, it won't even be on the table. Still, let's be thrilled there are actually choices!

· · 3 years ago

The Th!nk is being produced in Indiana and powered by batteries made here as well. I recently attended the Th!nk first delivery of a dozen vehicles to the IN Department of Natural Resources. These vehicles will be used primarily for security runs in our state parks. I was fairly impressed with the cars, as I was able to photograph and sit in them.

The Th!nk is clearly not for everyone! It is small and only seats two people. But the finish (particularly on the interior) is quite nice, and the overall design is very "cute." I do agree with others however that it is far overpriced. It should come in closer to the $20k mark, before incentives. That is what I would consider paying for such a vehicle if I were considering one. For the record, I am not; a two seater isn't practical for my family of three. Th!nk does have plans for a four seater in 2012.

I wasn't able to drive it, so I can't compare it to the Smart EV, which I was less than impressed with. Overall, I think the vehicle is a nice addition to the electric options we are suddenly faced with. For some, a cute, plastic, two-seater with a rockin' glass hatch design will be just the thing. For most, it won't even be on the table. Still, let's be thrilled there are actually choices!

I'd like to add that I have pics of the event and cars if anyone is interested in posting them.

Thanks.

· · 3 years ago

@PatricioEV - Welcome to the site. Glad you're here. It's great to hear your opinions about Think and Smart ED coming to Indiana.

If you go to the main Think page, in the middle column under discussions, or in the discussions tab, you'll see "Start a Discussion." That will give you a chance to write a few words, and upload up to 10 pics. Please give it a try, and let me know how it goes.

We would love to have somebody on the ground in Indiana following the EV scene. Cheers.

· EVcort2 (not verified) · 3 years ago

Personally I like the Think best of all the upcoming electrics. It's more distinctive in every way, and as far as cute, it's got them beat by a mile. In styling, the Leaf and Focus are certainly a step up from the Prius, but they are just about indistinguishable from any other Japanese/US compact on the road. I'm sure as long as supply is scarce the Think will get plenty of early adopters even at $34K, but if they want to do any volume with ordinary drivers, the price will have to come down quickly to compete with the more practical Leaf and Focus.

· Eric Strecker (not verified) · 3 years ago

I wish that they could get an EV that was made in the US that would get 200 miles per charge, I live 54 miles from work and with the batteries on most EVs droping to 80% capacitie after 5 years a 100 mile range in not worth it. Is there a diesel/electric car that is worth getting?

· · 3 years ago

@Eric Strecker, maybe a Chevy Volt would fit the bill. For your commute, you would use less gasoline than with a Prius. You would do even better if you can charge at work. For that matter, if workplace charging is a possibility, then perhaps an EV with a 100 mile range could work for you.

· Matt (not verified) · 3 years ago

In 2008 reviews, this car was rated to be sold for 18-20k, kept fingers crossed, their cost seems to have gone up anyway, but it is a nice little car compared to Leaf. If one is considering Volt which is similarly priced it is a pretty good pick. Ofcourse conversion is one good alternative too, if one can't afford an EV off the shelf .....

· Rod (not verified) · 3 years ago

One might as well wait for 5 seater Think Ox

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