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Automakers going vegan to reach groups who shun animal products

November 22, 2010
Michael Bell is a 66-year-old Encino, Calif., resident who 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 automobile manufacturers are 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. "As a marketer you want to identify with the passionate group," said Bob Kurilko, vice president of marketing for the automobile Web site, Marr Nealon, a nutritional consultant based in Eagle Rock, is just such a consumer. She doesn't wear silk out of concern for silkworms. Neither does she eat honey: "It's something the bees make for their own consumption. Why should we take their food?" 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 percent 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. 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. While not targeting vegans or vegetarians with direct appeals, Toyota has chosen not to offer its Prius with leather, aware that might offend some customers. Discussions of vegan and vegetarian ethics abound on the Internet, and many of them eventually get around to the issue of leather in cars. But as the market for the Prius has grown more mainstream, more and more potential customers have had the opposite reaction: Why can't you buy a Prius with leather in it?