Image counts for a lot in the automotive industry. Japanese brands like Toyota (NYSE:TM) and Honda (NYSE:HMC) are synonymous with quality. Korean upstarts Kia and Hyundai are making names for themselves as low-price leaders. And German-American car maker DaimlerChrysler (NYSE:DCX) is setting itself apart with bold styling.

Meanwhile, Ford (NYSE:F) and General Motors (NYSE:GM) stand for ... well, it's just not clear. However, Ford is working hard on an image makeover, seeking to establish itself as the leader in environmentally friendly vehicles. Financiers might condemn Ford's latest move, but it could contribute to the company's long-term vision.

With the Escape Hybrid as its only current proof of eco-friendliness, Ford seems determined to get as much green mileage out of the hybrid SUV as possible. The company launched a TV ad during the Super Bowl featuring Kermit the Frog in which the Muppet realizes that the Escape Hybrid makes being green easy after all. Last week, Ford upped the ante on its Escape Hybrid campaign, offering 0% financing for the vehicle in California and Washington, D.C.

The deal probably won't win Ford friends in the financial community. American automakers have been roundly and deservedly criticized for cut-rate promotions that have eroded profitability and led consumers to expect sweet incentives for American cars. It's easy to see the Escape Hybrid's financing plan as just another example of Detroit's dependence on such programs.

But in this case, the 0% deal may make sense. Ford is only offering it in the country's two leading hybrid markets. The financing, combined with Ford's new ad campaign, could help raise the Escape Hybrid's profile, advancing the company's goal of being known as the environmentally conscious car company. The timing is also right, since a change in the tax code now provides hybrid buyers with a credit between $250 and $3,400.

Ford's efforts with the Escape Hybrid show that the company is doing something that it hasn't done in some time -- executing on a vision. What's more, the strategy just might work. Although Toyota is the hybrid sales leader, it hasn't aggressively sought the mantle of environmentalist. That leaves the door open for Ford, and it's an opportunity worth exploiting.

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Fool contributor Brian Gorman is a freelance writer in Chicago. He does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.