Ford's Futurist, Sheryl Connelly, Talks Trends

by , Aug 29, 2011, 12:47 PM
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Ford Fiesta

Sheryl Connelly, Ford Motor Co.'s manager of global trends and futuring, has been holding forth recently at bi-coastal panel discussions about what the next generation of car-buyers wants. Millennials' lifestyles, culture, economic circumstances and passions certainly present a challenge to automakers: not only are they driving less, with fewer of them even getting a driver's license, their idea of vehicular performance is more likely to involve fuel economy and digital technology that lets them stay connected than muscle and style. Connelly expands on this, as well as her position at Ford, with Marketing Daily.

Q: So, why are driver's license registrations among Millennials falling?

A: In some states, it is harder to get your license once you turn 16. But, also, lots of kids just don't have the time nowadays. It's something people are postponing because it's just not convenient. And the cost of getting a driver's license is now high. I'm part of Gen X, and when I was a teen, a free [driver's ed] course was part of the high school curriculum offered during the summer almost as part of a coming-of-age ritual. That's not the case as much any more. It can run up to $800 to get trained and adding a teenage driver to a parent's policy is also very expensive now.

Q: What cultural shifts are turning younger consumers away from buying a car?

A: There are a lot of things competing for your dollar if you're 16, 17, 18. If you are a Baby Boomer, your first big purchase was a car. Today, it's cell phones, plasma TVs, computers. And the pace of innovation moves much more quickly now, so these products become obsolete more rapidly. Q: When I was a kid, it was all about getting that first car. For better or worse, your car was part of what defined you.

A: Right. Now it's about who has the latest iPhone or tablet. Among Millennials, those devices are more important. But it's really also important to talk about economic uncertainty as a backdrop for Millennials. They were raised with a strong sense of entitlement. It was reinforced that they are special and collectively vital. Then they find that the college experience has become cost prohibitive. While it remains to be seen how all this will play out, they are being clever, adopting this access-over-ownership style.

Q: What does that mean?

A: They don't need to buy it if they can rent it, for instance, whether it's cars, bikes handbags, or jewelry. All are categories we are seeing new access to in unconventional ways. We are seeing new paradigms.

Q: Has the age of the auto enthusiast ended?

A: I would qualify that it a bit. The age of the enthusiast is not gone. Look at events like Pebble Beach (Concours d'Elegance). But the universal appeal of the car as a status symbol has a lot more things competing against it now. The car can be a status symbol for some segments, but if you're a teenager it's more about utility and functionality.

Q: So when did you take on the "futurist" role at Ford, and are you the only one doing this at the company?

A: I have been with Ford 15 years and started doing this over seven years ago. When I started, I was one of a team. Then the realities of the industry downsized the group, and I'm sort of the last remaining person. But to say I work alone wouldn't be accurate, either, since with a lot of the things I do I get an extraordinary amount of help through things like collective workshops, and through bringing in people with global responsibility or cross-functional expertise.

Q: Would you say your job is about how to market what exists in new ways or how to create new products based on what hasn't happened yet?

A: Here's the fundamental premise: it can take 36 months to get a vehicle on the road. Sometimes longer. So when you sit down to plan a vehicle from a design-and-engineering standpoint, the problem is, how can you anticipate what will be relevant, because what has great consumer appeal today may not have the same resonance later. I also need to put up a disclaimer here about the futurist part of it: the irony of a title like futurist is that I spend most of my time reminding people that no one can predict the future.

Q: How does your interaction with Ford's designers and planners play out?

A: I facilitate discussions to make sure we are challenging our assumptions. That we are not making the wrong ones -- that consumers will always want SUVs, for instance. I look outside the auto industry at the STEEP (social, technology, environment, economy and politics) areas. It's about humility: we might have some really interesting number-crunching forecasting that gives us the illusion of great precision about what we think something will look like in the future, but my job is to say history never repeats itself exactly so what if that's wrong? How well prepared are we? What would we need to shift? Those five STEEP categories are interrelated because if you pull on one, the other four change.

Q: How do you look at those possibilities?

A: We do scenario planning. To over-simplify you might ask yourself what does a middle-class consumer want during a period of economic prosperity and then ask the same question during period of economic collapse. You start to get to values, attitudes, behavior. In an economic collapse there's apathy, fear, a current of anger.

Q: So it's broader than market research?

A: I don't do market research. What I do is very qualitative and admittedly subjective. It lives in this abstract space. I spend lots of time in a public affairs role explaining why Ford does what it does, and not from a product standpoint but from trends and how we respond to them. Take "information addiction," which is based on the idea, the observation, that when consumers have information at their fingertips in a just-in-time fashion, they are better able to control their environment, have more opportunities, choices, and more influence. And sometimes that can translate into greater power, control and success.

For some, this need for information becomes insatiable. So, when the company starts talking about whether there's a business case for doing, say, Sync [Ford's mobile platform] technology, I can argue that this trend shows it makes sense to invest in Sync. I can say we need this technology because consumers want to be seamlessly integrated at home, at the office, and everywhere in between.

And, considering we spend more and more time in cars, that just makes sense. The marketing component comes in when, instead of saying, "Ford came out with a new technology for phones," we start by showing the big picture, the trend, and explain why this product is relevant within that context.

Q: Is this kind of technology the way to keep the car from becoming a commodity?

A: Well, our response to that danger of the car becoming nothing more than an appliance is to make it more than transportation. That's why this technology is important to the vehicle experience: instead of a person saying they love the roar of the engine and horsepower, today people are saying give me the most fuel-efficient engine that does the job, but what else can it do for me than just transport me from A to B?

1 comment on "Ford's Futurist, Sheryl Connelly, Talks Trends ".

  1. Hart Weichselbaum from the planning practice
    commented on: August 31, 2011 at 9:28 a.m.

    I find her humility incredibly refreshing: "I also need to put up a disclaimer here about the futurist part of it: the irony of a title like futurist is that I spend most of my time reminding people that no one can predict the future."

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