It's not every day one sees a photo of an SUV splashed on top of the Sierra Club's home page in a positive mention.
Ford Motor Company began marketing its second gas-electric vehicle today, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid SUV, exclusively online in a 40-million-impression effort to reach environmentally conscious consumers.
Ford is buying keyword search terms such as "alternative fuels" on Yahoo and Google to reach these consumers, and doing home-page takeovers on CBSNews.com and consumer automotive information site Edmunds.com to reach a more general online audience.
The Mariner Hybrid was the featured auto in Edmunds.com "New Vehicle Spotlight" sponsored by Mercury today across the top of Edmunds.com home page. At the same time, the automaker got a big green boost from environmental activist group the Sierra Club.
A photo of the Mariner with the headline "A Better Way to Build an SUV" is featured across the top middle third of the Sierra Club's home page at SierraClub.org. "Ford Motor Company's Mercury Mariner is an American-made hybrid SUV that goes on sale online today, and the Sierra Club is working with Ford to help the company make it a success," read the group's home page.
The Sierra Club also sent information about the SUV to 300,000 of its activist members today in its "Insider" email newsletter, said Dan Becker, Washington director of the Sierra Club's global warming program.
The Mariner Hybrid will also be available for test-drives at a Sierra Club conference in San Francisco in September.
Ford is not paying the Sierra Club for the support and exposure, said Becker.
"We didn't think it was appropriate to charge money," he said. "We spend a lot of time bashing Ford, and we wanted to welcome this [vehicle]. When they start doing the right thing, we've got to pay attention to it." Mr. Becker said he believed this is the first time his group made a positive reference to an SUV.
Consumers can design and place orders for the Mariner Hybrid on MarinerHybrid.com using a live chat function to talk to "Personal Sales Consultants" who serve as liaisons between customers and dealers.
Once consumers select options and an area dealer, the sales consultant then gets a quote from the dealer and passes it on to the customer, according to Ford.
"The demand is truly consumer driven; a vehicle won't be built until a customer places an order," said Linda Perry-Lube, e-business and CRM manager of Lincoln Mercury. "The personal shopper will stay with that consumer from the time they click on the chat button until they take delivery of the vehicle. We let the consumer dictate how much or how little they use the personal sale consultant."
Ford has also created a micro-site with National Geographic to inform consumers about the hybrid and how to drive one efficiently, said Perry-Lube.
The Mercury Mariner is the second of five hybrids announced by Ford. The first, the Ford Escape Hybrid, went on sale last fall.
Two thousand Mercury Mariner Hybrids are schedule to be built for the 2006 model year, and then doubled to 4,000 for the 2007 model, according to Perry-Lube. Production of the Mariner Hybrid is scheduled to begin in October. Manufacturer's suggested retail price is $29,840.
U.S. car buyers bought 85,699 hybrids in 2004, according to press reports. So far this year, they've bought 92,558. The Toyota Prius accounts for about 58 percent of hybrid market. Honda's three models -- the Civic, Accord and Insight -- account for about 23 percent.
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