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Neal Dikeman submits : Rick Karg of RJ Karg Associates is a long-time energy consultant. He drove to Manhattan to visit his brother for Thanksgiving and spent turkey day at the police station filing a report. Someone stole off with this van. Back home in Maine, Rick replaced his tried and true sailboat-hauler with a Toyota (NYSE:TM) Highlander – complete with tow package – from Lee Toyota in Topsham.

Hybrid buyers are a different breed, says Adam Lee, owner of Lee Auto Malls, the number one seller of hybrids in Maine where Rick became the happy Papa of a hybrid. I learned a bit about hybrid habits from hanging around Rick, who read his Highlander owner manual front to back the first night he brought the car home. The technology is intriguing; the car’s dash displays the electricity flow from battery to wheel, wheel to battery.

Adam Lee, a Maine native and third generation car dealer, tells me the average hybrid buyer is in his or her 60s, has an average income of $98K and is well-educated. But, notes Lee, things change; like bottled water and organics, the hybrid is going mainstream. Trouble is, says Lee, mainstream needs a car that’s affordable.

“People with discretionary income buy the hybrids. The Prius is a luxury car.”

Other cars get the mileage – the 35-40mpg – but they don’t have the lower emissions, and that’s what the environmentally-minded Prius buyers seek. It's just not within the price range for mainstream.

I prepared only two questions for Lee after I’d been tipped off by Rick that Lee was distributing compact fluorescent bulbs to his hybrid buyers: 1) how did you decide to distribute compact fluorescent bulbs to your hybrid buyers?; 2) what other marketing do you do around hybrids?

Lee’s extensive involvement in the environmental community was, for me, unexpected: he’s on the board of Maine Audubon, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and the Natural Resource Council of Maine. He’s an advisor to the Nature Conservancy. His company supports public radio. Says Lee:

“We do a lot of small donations.”

After Lee began selling hybrids in 2001, the Maine Council of Churches approached him. They were looking for a hybrid to display at a clean energy fair.

“Word got out that we were very supportive, and we were at every fair.”

Lee acknowledges that none of this leadership in the environment will lead business directly to the doors of his multiple car dealerships.

“I don’t expect to make the money back.”

So why do it?

“I do it because it’s the right thing to do. We could sit around and the hybrid would sell, but I believe it’s important. I have kids. I live in Maine. It helps to spread the message, and I hope that it creates more buyers.”

Artwork by Lee’s children adorns the door to his office just off of the dealership showroom.

Lee donated a Toyota Highlander hybrid [31mpg] for the Maine Home Performance with Energy Star® Whole House Makeover Show which is running on Maine’s CW TV out of Portland – Lee’s dealership got a major plug by the Show, although he asked not to have it so.

“If you do good things, you’ll be rewarded. We would keep doing it, regardless.”

That includes a break with fellow car dealers: Lee testified on behalf of a clean car bill in Maine, a bill similar to California’s law calling for lowering pollutants from car exhausts.

“People are going to buy cars. I’m a bit at odds, as a dealer.”

[Lee is also the number one seller in Maine of Jeeps, a gas guzzler: “We can’t sell only hybrids.”] But, he says:

“If I can use a tiny bit of influence to get manufacturers to produce the cleaner cars, I will. They won’t do it until they are forced to make them.”

Echoing Amory Lovins’ ‘drilling in Detroit,’ Lee says:

“Bringing up CAFE, that would have more impact than every hybrid produced.”

He believes car manufacturers have failed the public by not producing cars and trucks with better gas mileage, and the federal government is going to have to force the car manufacturers to do it.

Meanwhile, Lee testifies and he sells a car that has aura – and a waiting list.

“Toyota is on to something. They work hard to get more sales. You can’t fake this. You can’t ignore people’s wishes. The challenge is meeting demand.”

In contrast:

“GM’s cars aren’t interesting, even if they get 30-40mpg. They’re not reliable enough; they’re practical, not sexy. High mileage alone isn’t enough. Perception is important.”

In a car market that has too much capacity, “Toyota’s in the lead.”

If the economy stays up and the price stays up, Lee believes Toyota will come out with financing incentives. The trick is not to dispel the aura that lends itself to the up-market segment.

“Sometimes it’s just good fortune to have a great product that movie stars drive. Toyota should stick to brand.”

Perhaps Toyota will “de-content” the hybrid [that is, remove features like GPS that jack up the price.]

Lee will continue to market with compact fluorescent bulbs, to partner with greenies, to sit on environmental boards.

“We’re always doing something. We copied an article called ‘Pulse and Glide. How to Get 100mgp’ and sent it to our hybrid buyers.”

Lee and Toyota understand the game of feedback, the allure of watching electricity flow from battery to wheel, wheel to battery as hybrid owners try to get the most mileage out of the mpg gauge.

“Feedback. The game needs feedback. Kids love it!”

So do adults. My mother who is in her 70s told me this week that she wants a hybrid. She loves her old Toyota Tacoma. My brother recently bought a Tacoma extended cab for his new country house. I know when my mom says ‘hybrid,’ it’s synonymous with Toyota.

I attended the 2006 Maine Neighborhoods: Building Strong Communities conference yesterday. Maine may look sleepy - and the abandoned textile and shoe factories bleak - but when it comes to cleantech, it has great potential; it has an energized, interested, involved community focused on sustainability. Yet, a recently released report from the Brookings Institution says Maine suffers from pessimism about its future. That's not what I saw yesterday.

Source: Hybrid Vehicle Marketing: Toyota Leads Here As Well