By Greg Paull, Co-founder & Principal, R3

A higher willingness to purchase new energy vehicles (EV) in China signals the rapid maturity of a relatively new segment. More than 1 million EVs were bought in China last year, an increase of almost 60% from 2016, with A00 Level new energy passenger vehicles accounting for 87% of the market, according to enspire, a market intelligence report by independent consultancy R3.

With more than 500 EV start-ups in China, the automotive market looks to be overwhelmed with electric vehicles as production is anticipated to be 10 times more than the government’s target this year. Unprecedented volumes coupled with reductions of subsidies on EV purchases are sure to set a change in the marketing strategies of multinational and local EV makers. 

An advertising market with room to grow

Though China’s EV market has been preparing consumers to accept new energy cars for many years, investment in advertising is still in its nascent stages as companies work to inform and influence consumer mindset instead of purely focusing on building brand awareness. This is a similar trend worldwide in this category. EV brands have greater visibility in industry news, investor PR and social media, though this is slowly changing.

With the weakening of price as an influence in brand selection, electric carmakers will focus their marketing spend on China’s premium segment purchasers as they are less influenced by cost and more motivated by advanced technology. These trendsetters and early adopters prioritize vehicle performance and overall transport experience and use their EVs to exert individuality and demonstrate a sense of leadership.

Performance and Aspiration drive EV sales in China

In a review of recent campaigns by leading EV brands in China, two main themes currently driving marketing are Performance and Aspirations. Performance, to highlight features like mileage, speed and safety in comparison to gasoline cars, and Aspiration in the context of futuristic technology and lifestyle.


Local EV brand BYD (Build Your Dreams) has been a dominant leader in the new energy vehicle market in China for several years as a result of competitive pricing, national support policies and first-mover advantage. BYD is capitalizing on well-known foreign experts and celebrities, like Leonardo DiCaprio, to enhance its reputation as a global competitor. It also doesn’t hurt that the carmaker has a backer in Warren Buffet aka gǔshén (“god of stocks” in Mandarin).

Of multinational companies in the EV market, BMW has been the most active in marketing by expanding its new energy product line, though Tesla retains high-awareness in this category thanks to its skill in leveraging design, innovation and online savvy. Both brands are investing in 020 strategies, setting up offline campaigns that allow consumers to experience driving the vehicles and creating their own “driving journeys” which are shareable on social media. 


As technology features and overall transport experience are becoming the battlefield for marketing messages, lower-tier nameplates become less attractive investments and luxury brands move to fill demand in the mid-tier market. The Shanghai-based EV maker NIO is an example. Only four-years-old, the brand is building a community around the concept of a luxury ecosystem that includes ultimate service experience, professionalism, transparency and credibility.

Unable to compete on performance when compared to brands like Tesla, NIO appeals to China’s aspiring wealthy with a flagship store that is a homage to minimalist design and challenges visitors to consider a car as an extension of home. The brand also recently partnered with the world renown school of art and design, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, to launch their “Blue Sky Thinking” community of designers and has also launched a limited collection with designer Hussein Chalayan.

The challenge for brands like NIO is in breaking consumers’ traditional ideas about “cars” as simply modes of transportation, to integrating them into a specific consumer group by making the EV brand part of their social interaction.

The study referenced in this report is enspire, a market intelligence report by R3 that provides a deep understanding of how brands are effectively reaching and engaging Chinese consumers digitally. The report is built on real consumer feedback with 3,000 sample sizes each quarter for consistent data and indexing references.