Imagine trying to market a product that most Americans regard as old and obsolete, that is remembered -- if at all -- as low-class and low-tech, noisy and noisome, and whose most notable advocates are truck drivers with prominent trouser cleavage.
CB radio? An excellent guess, but no.
Diesel, the oilier cousin of gasoline, dominates the European auto market, where fuel prices hover around $7 a gallon. Diesel is about 25% to 40% more fuel-efficient than gasoline, with commensurate per-mile reductions in carbon. The German luxury automakers -- Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Porsche and BMW -- are masters of turbo-diesel technology and have long argued that it is, on balance, superior to hybrid technology.
Now a confluence of factors -- the availability of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel in the U.S., the emergence of California-legal exhaust-scrubbing technologies, higher fuel economy standards and spiraling fuel costs -- has set the stage for diesel's triumphant return to the U.S.
The problem? No buyers. For many Americans, diesel is simply smut.
Audi and BMW are determined to change those perceptions with big, shiny ad campaigns to promote diesel. In August, BMW sponsored the season premiere of AMC's "Mad Men" and purchased a slew of cable and print ads to promote its branded diesel technology called Efficient Dynamics. BMW also sponsored a splashy home page takeover of the New York Times' website and MSN.com with ads featuring spokesman Brian Unger. The TV and Web ad creative duties were handled by GSD&M Idea City of Austin, Texas.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Marketing diesel autos: Dan Neil's advertising column in Tuesday's Business section about German automakers' marketing of diesel models in the U.S. credited GSD&M Idea City of Austin, Texas, for the creative work on BMW's TV and Web campaign. The creative work was by Dotglu of New York.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Marketing diesel autos: Dan Neil's advertising column in Tuesday's Business section about German automakers' marketing of diesel models in the U.S. credited GSD&M Idea City of Austin, Texas, with performing the creative duties for BMW's TV and Web ads. GSD&M Idea City created the TV and print ads, but Dotglu of New York handled the online advertising. In addition, a previous correction incorrectly credited Dotglu with handling the creative work on the TV and Web campaign.
To provide a visual counterpoint to the notion of dirty diesel, the BMW ads are stark white and dazzlingly lighted like a surgical theater, with the professorial Unger -- also rather stark white, if you ask me -- standing under a ceiling of compact-fluorescent light bulbs. The message comes through loud and clear: Diesel is cleaner and more efficient.
"This is the big push," Patrick McKenna, manager of marketing communications for BMW, told Adweek. "For us, it's about changing the perception that diesel is still that noisy and smelly [technology] many people remember from the '70s."
Currently, BMW offers two diesels in the market: the 335d and the X5 xDrive 35da ceiling of compact-fluorescent light bulbs.
In June, Audi staged home page takeovers of Huffingtonpost.com, Slate.com, Politico.com and other newsy progressive sites. Its diesel campaign (from Venables Bell & Partners in San Francisco) features rusty oil drums rolling down streets, seemingly being repatriated onto tankers://audimedia.iconicweb.com/video/141/Audi_Oil_Parade.flv&image =being repatriated onto tankers. The ad imagery was based on a factoid derived from an estimate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: According to Audi, if one-third of U.S. drivers drove clean diesels it would mean the U.S. could send back 1.5 million barrels of imported oil a day.
Yet there was little mistaking a satisfying undertow of nationalism in the ads, if not xenophobia, as they seem to push back against the malign effects of "foreign" oil.
Although disavowing any nationalistic subtext, "we looked at it as a political campaign," says Scott Keogh, chief marketing officer for Audi of America. "We wanted to make diesel a much bigger idea that people could rally around."
The initial stage of Audi's diesel campaign scored big. The company got more than 300,000 Facebook visitors in the first month and traffic to the brand's U.S. website jumped 267%, with a total of 120 million media impressions, Keogh says.
Interestingly, the Audi website mentions its diesel competitors, and the tenor of the campaign is generally more about supporting diesel per se. "We're OK with that," Keogh says. "Anything that says that diesel is the right thing to do, we're in favor of. Later, in late fall '09, when the A3 TDI [a premium hatchback] comes out, then we'll get into 'Why Audi?' "
All this leaves the other two high-end German carmakers on the sidelines, comfortably. Mercedes-Benz was the first company to offer a 50-state clean diesel two years ago (E320 BlueTec), and now sells three diesel models. The company has done some diesel-specific marketing, but Mercedes-Benz USA spokeswoman Donna Boland says, "The most effective way to convince someone that diesel is right for him or her is to get them behind the wheel."
Meantime, says Boland, "the [diesel] advertising has a cumulative effect in creating positive interest in diesel and therefore more floor traffic."
The company that stands to benefit most from the Germans' diesel push is one least associated with diesel: the sports-car maker Porsche. The diesel Cayenne SUV accounts for 60% of the company's sales. And even though the car is 28% more fuel-efficient than the comparable gas model, in the U.S., "there is not currently a business case for this car," says Porsche product engineer Michael Leitners. "We wish there were."
Maybe soon, with the help of Porsche's competitors, there will be.