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.”

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