Is your car vegan?
Actor Michael Bell's is. The 66-year-old Encino resident doesn't eat or wear animal products, and his hybrid car doesn't have a stitch of leather in it.
If it had, Bell said, he wouldn't have bought the car, a 2001 Toyota Prius, despite its impeccable green credentials.
In raw numbers, vegans such as Bell are so few that they barely register on surveys of consumer habits. But to automobile manufacturers trying to win favor among the increasing number of consumers who say they are environmentally conscious, vegans -- who avoid all animal products -- are what one marketing expert called the center of the bull's-eye.
Pleasing vegans, the theory goes, is key to reaching a wider group of consumers -- affluent shoppers who worry about the environment and who are willing to pay extra for food, clothing and even automobiles, if they are made in ways that do less harm to the planet.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 13, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Leather seats -- An article Aug. 23 in Section A about the marketing of cars to consumers who shun animal products may have left the impression that Toyota would never offer its Prius with leather seats. Although Toyota has no plans at this time to put leather in the Prius, the company has not ruled out offering that option in the future.
Toyota Motor Corp. is so attuned to the sensibilities of these so-called green consumers that the company doesn't even offer leather seats for the popular Prius.
Ford Motor Co., under fire from environmental activists for its gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, ran an eight-page advertisement in the New Yorker magazine touting the company's green credentials. The ad led off with the boast that 11 members of the design team for the company's soon-to-be-released hybrid Escape SUV are vegetarians, and its leader is a vegan.
Even Mercedes-Benz, which does not make a hybrid, will offer a "non-leather" package starting with the 2005 model year, in response to customer requests. Previously, all of the luxury automaker's high-end cars came standard with leather seats.
"As a marketer you want to identify with the passionate group," said Bob Kurilko, vice president of marketing for the automobile website Edmunds.com.
"The middle of the bull's-eye is where you want to focus your marketing, and then you want to expand your message around that. If you draw these concentric circles, the middle of the bull's-eye right now is the vegan."
Marr Nealon, a nutritional consultant based in Eagle Rock, is just such a consumer. She doesn't wear silk out of concern for silkworms. She won't eat honey, saying, "It's something the bees make for their own consumption. Why should we take their food?"
Nealon's 2001 Volkswagen Golf has no leather in it. She said she would gladly pay extra to ensure that her car was leather-free and environmentally friendly. Next year, she plans to buy a Toyota Prius, despite its higher cost.
Vegans themselves are not a powerful market force. Joe Marra, executive director of a market research firm that specializes in environmentally conscious consumers, said vegetarians make up just 1.5% of the general population, and vegans hardly register at all.
But Marra's firm, the Natural Marketing Institute, has done research showing that more than a quarter of the adult population, about 56 million people nationwide, say they look for products that are "healthy and sustainable." And the vast majority of these consumers say they are willing to pay significantly more for environmentally friendly products.
It's these customers -- who buy organic produce and biodegradable cleaning products -- whom the car companies really want, Marra and others said.
"The incidence of veganism and vegetarianism is very low, but the incidence of people being aware of issues like cruelty to animals is much higher," Marra said.
This broader circle of crossover consumers accounts for $226.8 billion in sales of alternative products, including organic foods, cruelty-free cosmetics and, increasingly, hybrid and other vehicles that emit less air pollution than typical vehicles, said Brad Warkins, president of Conscious Media.
Warkins puts on an annual trade show for companies that want to reach these consumers. Eight years ago, he said, the conference drew a few small companies; last year, it attracted 800 representatives from hundreds of businesses, including Ford Motor Co. and Time Warner Inc.
Sherri Shapiro, who is directing Ford's marketing campaign for the Escape hybrid, defines the target buyers this way: They have higher than average educational levels and household incomes, they tend to live in metropolitan areas, they read more than average and they watch less TV.
To reach them, the company has taken out ads in the New Yorker, developed a promotion with an organic tea company and sponsored programming on National Public Radio. Last year, Ford co-sponsored Warkins' trade show. There, Mary Ann Wright, who heads the company's hybrid technologies division, told a lunchtime crowd that she had been a vegan for 23 years. Moreover, Wright said in remarks that were later printed in the New Yorker ad, 11 members of her design team were vegetarians.
Toyota, trying to reach a similar audience, has co-sponsored a yoga conference and advertised the Prius in Organic Style magazine.