What Porsche’s Super Bowl Ad Actually Means for Porsche

For the 72-year-old luxury-performance brand, there are many reasons to launch an electric vehicle now.

In Porsche's Super Bowl spot, the Taycan holds its own with its legendary forebears. Porsche
Headshot of Robert Klara

Tonight’s Super Bowl ad for Porsche—60 seconds of twisty roads, growling engines and epic driving created by agency Cramer-Krasselt—was pretty much the sort of sleek production you’d expect from a pricey German nameplate equipped to buy into America’s priciest air time. But while “The Heist,” which featured security guards in hot pursuit of a thief who’d stolen a new Taycan Turbo S from the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, was good fun, it was also a monumental step for Porsche that, like many of its competitors, finds itself in a fast-changing market.

The Taycan marks Porsche’s entry into the electric-vehicle segment, and the fact that this first EV offering was the reason Porsche ended a 23-year absence from the Big Game gives some indication how vital and decisive the new Taycan is in Porsche’s 72-year history of building performance luxury cars.

“This is a momentous time for Porsche, entering into a new era of electrification,” Klaus Zellmer, CEO of Porsche America, told Adweek. “The moment is so important and spectacular that we turned to the biggest stage in America to show people a story about who we are, where we come from and where we are going.”

As tonight made clear, Porsche is going in the direction of battery power, a radical departure from the fast, powerful, petrol-drinking engines that made it legendary. While the $150,900 Taycan is Porsche’s sole EV for now, more are coming. By 2022, the company says, it will have sunk $6 billion into working on electromobility. At the Taycan’s global debut in September, Oliver Blume, chairman of Porsche AG’s executive board, made the company’s future directions clear when he said, “This day marks the start of a new era.”

EV sales take off like a shot

Why is Porsche going big with the electric message now? There are many reasons, but one that’s doubtless had a heady influence is the direction American car buyers are going. In short, after many years of customers regarding them skeptically, electric vehicles are suddenly selling considerably better than many analysts thought they would.

According to the Edison Electric Institute, EV sales spiked by 81% in 2018. As of March 31, U.S. roads had just north of 1 million EVs on them. Electric vehicles also have a bright future, according to a recent report from the Boston Consulting Group, which announced that “sales of electrified vehicles [are] growing even faster than expected. These cars will seize a third of the market by 2025 and 51% by 2030, surpassing sales of vehicles powered purely by internal combustion engines.”

The influence of Tesla

Another factor that likely plays into Porsche’s electrical dynamic is the performance of Tesla—not on the road, but in the showroom. Having debuted in 2012, Tesla has taken the lead in the EV category, with somewhere north of 381,000 vehicles sold. But while the Tesla brand itself proved the electric vehicles were viable transportation, it was Tesla’s Model S that proved something more specific: that there was a viable market for EVs in the luxury category. (The S’s sticker price starts around $75,000, but added options easily push it above $100,000.)

“For a long time, EVs were seen by people as [being] green—they weren’t necessarily associated with performance,” said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights for automotive-information site Edmunds. “The Tesla Model S changed that. The perception now is that EVs can be really great performance, so it’s closer to the Porsche ethos.”

Carla Bailo, president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, said more and more luxury nameplates are realizing that consumer apprehensions about electric vehicles’ ability to hold their own in the performance category have largely abated—“it just took Tesla to smack everyone in the face,” Bailo said—so it’s only logical that Porsche is now advancing its Taycan as a contender.

The luxury pack is already charged up

It’s worth pointing out that Porsche closely follows a spate of luxury-performance nameplates that have recently rolled out electric vehicles. Audi’s e-tron all-electric SUV made its debut in 2019. Mercedes-Benz’s EQC is coming in 2021, and so is Volvo’s XC40 Recharge. Jaguar began shipping its i-Pace electric SUV toward the latter half of 2018 and, last summer, announced it would “accelerate electrification” by producing a range of new EVs at its plant in Castle Bromwich.

BMW was an early entrant to the EV segment in 2013 and last year introduced its X3 SUV. It announced last year that it’s doubling its battery production capability at its factory in South Carolina and will have 25 plug-in vehicles in production by 2023.

Even the super high-end manufacturers have realized that now’s the time to try electric out. Aston Martin’s Rapide E , reportedly priced around $255,000, will start a limited production this year. Bugatti and Rolls Royce, too, have hinted at upcoming offerings in the electric arena, with Rolls CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös saying last year that his company is “on it” and will roll out an e-offering “when the time is right.”

The future won’t be diesel powered

Directly or indirectly, the Taycan also gives Porsche some distance from the gigantic scandal that enveloped parent Volkswagen Group beginning in September 2015, when VW admitted it had fitted out 600,000 cars with “defeat devices” programmed to evade U.S. emissions tests. Not only did the company’s manifold boasts about “clean diesel” go up in smoke, so did its presumptive future strategy.

“Porsche is owned by VW and they placed all their eggs in the diesel basket,” Caldwell said. “So in terms of looking at the road ahead … that’s switched entirely to EVs for the entire VW group.”

Veteran automotive authority Paul Eisenstein, publisher and editor in chief of The Detroit Bureau, adds that the pivot to electric-car technology has essentially been foisted on many European nameplates in the wake of the VW scandal.

“Europe was hoping to stick with diesel and is only reluctantly doing whatever they have to do,” Eisenstein said. (Diesel produced higher revenues and profits alike for these brands.) “If you were a European manufacturer, why would you want to shift to a technology [like electric that] everybody knows is expensive and consumers are skeptical about?”

A few bends in the road ahead?

Now that Porsche has committed itself to EVs, industry experts say one of its challenges will be to convince well-heeled buyers that a battery-powered Porsche ranks up there with its famous, gas-powered predecessors. As Bailo sees it: “They’ll have to get people into the car to realize the performance is just as good, that they have the same integrity and handling and ride, and they don’t lose the brand identity when they switch to electrification.”

This hurdle in perception is likely why Porsche’s Super Bowl ad took obvious pains to show that the new Taycan could hold its own with a museum’s worth of its famous forbears, including a 918 Spyder, a 917K race car and a classic 911.

“In this ad, we are showing that they are all connected by a common heritage,” Zellmer said. “The Taycan is an emotionally exciting Porsche, just like its predecessors.”

Viewers may have noticed that all of the Porsches in the ad exhibited superlative speed and handling. Visitors to Porsche’s web site will learn that the Taycan can go from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in 2.6 seconds (which is, actually, a good deal faster than a 911 Carrera takes to make the same leap.)

One final challenge? Waiting. Despite electric vehicles’ growing popularity and spate of new models hitting the market, they made up a mere 1.5% of new car sales in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2019 and they account for only 5% of the overall light-vehicle market globally.

“The reality is,” Eisenstein said, “the market is extraordinarily small.”

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@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.