Researchers from the University of California at Davis are speaking directly with hybrid owners to better understand hybrid car purchase decisions. Ken Kurani, Tom Turrentine, and Rusty Heffner of UC Davis’s Institute of Transportation Studies eschew traditional marketing techniques like focus groups, or surveys in which thousands of consumers tick a series of boxes and number-crunchers tally the results.

Instead, the UC researchers sit down over the kitchen table with the entire consumer household—commonly the car purchase is a family decision—for two hours or more, and let the stories come out. In this way, they believe they develop a deeper understanding of what’s motivating hybrid owners. They’ve interviewed more than 30 households who bought Priuses, Civics, and Insights—and now they are moving on to the latest wave of hybrids.

Bradley Berman, editor of, spoke with Kurani and Heffner on Dec. 21, 2005.

Bradley Berman: What is the primary goal of your research?

Rusty Heffner: We’re trying to understand what motivates people to buy a new kind of vehicle. As Americans, when you are buying a car, you have so many choices. You have over 300 combinations of make and model. Why does somebody consider a new technology like a hybrid?

Ken Kurani: We learned from our first sets of interviews to throw out our assumptions, to start from scratch rather than, in effect, go into an interview with a checklist of things to look for. To go into interviews with a wide-open mind, and let the stories tell us what was important about what people were doing. And then Rusty developed an analytical approach to deal with cars as symbols of identities.

BB: What do you mean by "symbols of identities?"

KK: In an increasingly market-based society, the things we buy are more and more a part of representations of who we are. And cars are incredibly important symbols of who we are, in large part, because cars are so mobile and so many people see them everyday.

Also, I think our identities are constructed as narratives. And we’re always looking for new elements for those narratives. We’re comparing the stories we have about ourselves today to older stories and to ideal stories. In those comparisons, we’re looking for either new ways to either advance the storyline we like, or change the one we don’t like. The idea of what a car means can be one of those important story elements.

BB: Journalists commonly criticize hybrid cars for not providing a return on investment for their owners. Based on your research, what’s your opinion of that criticism?

RH: I think the question journalists are asking is, ‘Do hybrids save money?" It’s the wrong question. A more basic question to ask is, "Do people who are buying hybrid cars really care about saving money?" The truth is that everybody likes to save money in the abstract. But we found in our research that saving money is not the primary motivator for buying a hybrid vehicle. Some people might think about hybrids as ways to save money. Those are not the types of people who are buying these types of vehicles.

KK: In the interviews, we heard that people who bought a hybrid compared it to nothing else. Once they heard about a Prius, for example, and heard about its capabilities, that became the car they needed next to advance a certain story line. At that point, keeping their old car was no longer desirable.

Here’s where we get into a difference between our approach and a rational analytical approach. The rational analyst might compare their old car to a Prius in terms of cost and performance and those sorts of things, and look to the answers as to why they bought a Prius in the attributes of those vehicles. We’re looking at it, and saying no, we think it’s driven by the person trying to extend their identity into a new direction or further along in a direction they were already heading. That’s the important comparison. What does this care say about who these people are? This explains why they didn’t look at any other car, because no other car does what the hybrid does. And it explains why keeping their old car isn’t an option.

BB: What meanings are the hybrid owners attaching to their hybrids?

RH: There are common meanings that run through our interviews. And there are often some individual meanings as well. Preserving the natural environment is the obvious meaning of the hybrid, but it’s a lot deeper than that. What we hear from people is that when they buy a hybrid vehicle, it expresses their vision of a better world, and their desire for a society and a world where people work together for common goals. One of our subjects just had her first grandchild. That was why she felt the world needed to be a better place.

We talked to a young woman, still in college. She went to buy a new car, and really wanted a hybrid Civic. For her, the hybrid showed an awareness of bigger issues outside herself that most of her fellow college students couldn’t really grasp yet.

She went to the dealership with her dad. She was a college student, and clearly had serious budget constraints. She worked all summer, and saved her money. She and her father were talking with the sales person at the dealership. It became pretty clear that her budget was not going to let her get into a hybrid Civic. Of course, the salesman wanted to make his sale, so he started talking to her about a regular gasoline Civic LX, with similar features. The car looks identical. The only difference is there’s no hybrid drivetrain. And she got really upset, and was ready to walk out of the dealership because as far as she’s concerned, he proposed a vehicle that’s a complete step down from what she wants.

The press is fond of comparing a
and a Prius, or a Civic Hybrid to its regular gasoline counterpart. Those comparisons are fine. They seem logical, but I think, in the mind of most consumers, that’s a comparison that never gets made. The college student’s emotional reaction demonstrates that there’ something else at work for people that buy hybrids. The hybrid and conventional version of the same vehicle are viewed as very different. In the end, the college student worked out a lease arrangement so she could have the hybrid.

BB: Car marketers might respond to what you are saying, and think, "Can we just sell them anything? If the car says, ‘we care about the world,’ then we can sell them an inferior product at a high price because it says something desirable." I would think there would be serious limits to success with that approach.

KK: You know, you’d think so, but I look at SUVs. We heard back in the late 90s, that the profit margins on these things were 30 to 40 percent—and they’re basically just cheap pickup trucks with different sheet metal. But the car companies were selling them for a lot of money. They were getting very high profits. Yet most Americans don’t drive off-road. Most Americans don’t tow. Most Americans don’t need something that large in any functional way. They claim that they do.

I look at the SUV phenomenon as another example in which the symbolic meaning of a vehicle has to be added to the list of reasons why people bought them, and to explain the explosion in their growth.