April 14, 2008 -- Business Week -- Marketing


Getting Buyers to Care About Ford Again

CMO Jim Farley is trying to reengage buyers with the Ford brand through an innovative new marketing campaign

Soon after uprooting his family to move from sunny Santa Monica to a dreary Michigan winter last November, Jim Farley started seeing several psychologists.

But it wasn't to check his sanity. Farley had left his job running Toyota's (TM) successful Lexus division to be Ford's (F) global chief marketing officer, and now he realized that he had a problem he had never dealt with before. The Ford brand had 90% awareness among new car buyers. Forty-five percent of people surveyed said they like Ford. But it is struggling with a 13% share of the retail vehicle market. "People moved past being skeptical about Ford to being apathetic," says Farley. His question to some psychologists: "How do you get someone to care about you when they have disengaged?"

The answer from the counselors was "engagement." Farley says he was told that he would have to engage the people he was after in ways that they were not used to or in ways that made them think of Ford similarly to when they did care. For Farley, that advice is taking the form of a new marketing campaign with the simple slogan "Ford. Drive One." But Farley, barely six months on the job, says the engagement the company is going to try is through people, not enormous flashy TV campaigns. "If we are going to turn around the way people feel about Ford, it's going to be person to person."

Ford House Parties

Ford employees are the new messengers of Ford quality and innovation in ads and Internet Webisodes. In one Webisode, for example, Global Chief Engineer of Safety Systems Stephen Kozak talks about how Ford has more five-star government crash ratings than any other automaker and how the company pioneered crash-safety technology on which the government bases some of its current standards.

In a series of Webisodes called Friend to Friend, a car that Ford has lent to an owner of a competing brand is handed over to one of the person's friends. In one featuring the Ford Focus, Hyundai owner Kate Ewell talks about how much she likes the car, and then she tries to sell her friend Allison on its merits. This networking approach has been extended to thousands of house parties Ford is sponsoring where people link with local dealers and have a Ford at their house. The approach is almost like Tupperware parties where the host demonstrates the food storage products and gets friends to buy.

The first wave of house parties was held last week during ABC's Oprah's Big Give, a reality show on which Ford advertises. Ford is also a title sponsor of Fox's American Idol and ABC's Extreme Makeover. While Ford is reducing the amount of money it spends on network TV in favor of dealer-directed advertising, Farley says reality shows have a "town square" aspect to them where people still gather and watch with little ad-skipping. Around Ford, Farley is now infamous for saying, "The dirty secret of prime-time TV is that 20% of the audience is either asleep or drunk."

Ad Campaign Has a Familiar Ring

In a series of new TV ads, Ford has filmed employees who have responsibility for a car talking about the technology and capability of the vehicle. Each ad finishes with the employee introducing him or herself. Product designer Jason Johnson, who works on Ford's SYNC system that allows drivers to cue up content on their stereo and handle text messages by voice command, stars in a new ad and Webisode.

Since Farley has arrived at Ford, he has conveyed an almost boyish enthusiasm for the turnaround he's been hired to help with. A Michigan native whose grandfather was a Ford employee and later a Lincoln dealer less than 15 miles from Ford headquarters, Farley said he recently went to Ford's corporate archives and retrieved his grandfather's employee identity card from 1919. While visiting the archives, Farley was taken, he says, by photographs of Ford employees that were commonplace in decades gone by.

"The entire workforce of the Allen Park assembly plant turned out in front of the building for a photograph," says Farley.

Ford has had a recent history of changing marketing strategies as often as some of its customers change the oil in their vehicles. Indeed, says the CMO, "Pretty much six strategies in six years." The new campaign is reminiscent of a corporate ad campaign Ford began in the 1980s that many believe was its most successful ever: "Quality Is Job One."

One reason Ford got away from that campaign was that as J.D. Power & Associates' quality surveys began, Ford lagged its Asian rivals. The ad campaign was hard to sustain after that. But part of Ford's new ad effort is trumpeting the message that its quality is statistically equal to Toyota's, at least according to a study recently done by Bloomfield Hills (Mich.)-based RDA Group.

Changing Consumer Perceptions

RDA doesn't have the name recognition of J.D. Power, but its findings are consistent with those of Power's Initial Quality Study last year, which had the Ford brand lagging Toyota by only a few points. Power's new IQS rankings come out in June, and Ford says if the firm's findings are consistent with RDA's, it will promote those results, too. Consumer Reports last fall also gave Ford a boost, rating 41 of 44 vehicles average or better. Ford scored much better than either General Motors (GM) or Chrysler. And the senior editor of the magazine's auto testing center said that Ford was no longer competing with U.S. carmakers for quality, but with the Japanese leaders.

But that's a tough message to get across and have stick in the minds of consumers who remember Ford quality problems from the 1980s and '90s, when the joke was that Ford was an acronym for "Fixed Or Repaired Daily."

"Ford's products are as good as I have ever seen them, and as good as or better than many of the Asian models they compete aganst," says George Peterson of auto industry consultancy AutoPacific. Peterson says that the Ford Flex, a crossover sport-utility vehicle Ford will launch in the fall, looks especially like a model that will attract new buyers to look at Ford.

Says Farley, "No question that changing perception is the biggest and most significant challenge we have, but we have the goods, the products, and the proof if we can get people to listen and pay attention a little." The key, he says, "is to convince even a small number of people, starting with our employees and dealers, and have them tell a few people."

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