Ford Goes Further: Client of the Year - Ford

How reengineered marketing — including location-based ads, mobile and smarter social — are bringing this battered brand back from the brink.

ford_mewi13.jpgIf Americans have always loved an underdog, then Ford has been on top for decades.Even before its current renaissance, or the automotive near-apocalypse that sparked it back in 2008, the brand was an epic loser, often referred to as Fix Or Repair Daily.

“We’d been going out of business for 10 years before I got here in 2007,” Jim Farley, Ford’s group vice president of global marketing, quipped while addressing an American National Advertisers meeting last fall. However, the company’s 2008 decision not to accept government bailout funds shifted consumer perception of Ford from crappy to scrappy. “When we told people we didn’t need help, we became even more of an underdog, and people started rooting for us.”

What’s won consumers over, though — and the reason MEDIA has selected Ford as Client of the Year — is that in 2012, many of the change-or-die initiatives set into place in the grim post-2008 era are paying off, showing just how committed Ford is to a bumper-to-bumper reinvention. 

Consumers see it, too. Ford shot up to 39th place in the Brand Keys Loyalty Ranking this year, up from 86th last year, says Robert Passikoff, founder and CEO of Brand Keys. The rapid rise is because “Ford has the ability to meet the ever-increasing level of expectations that consumers have for brands. With so many comparable cars, consumers are now making decisions based on emotions and what they see as innovations, and Ford has done very well in communicating those.”


Rebuilding the Marketing Engine

The critical change, Farley told the group, was a willingness to rethink just about every aspect of marketing. “We were spending 10 percent of our entire budget just to produce spots. So we made a commitment to eliminate waste, and cut our production budget in half. Whatever we saved, we put into consumer-facing media,” he says. “And we got input from all around the globe. Maybe mobile best practices come from India, or social from China. Everyone listens to each other, and it’s been so rewarding.”

A closer look at how consumers buy cars led to a closer look at launches, normally a secretive affair, and turning it into its own version of crowdsourcing. Inspired by the way videogame and movie marketers would prelaunch products with journalists and bloggers, it did the same. “We used social so people could opt in, and we can show the product a year ahead of time. Now we have time to react. We know what colors they like. And this slow burn lets you build momentum.”

Using that approach for the Fiesta, “we had 60 percent nameplate awareness before we ran one traditional ad, and we had spent nothing — that showed me the power of social media. We now have scaled that for all our launches, spending 20 percent of the budget on the prelaunch phase.”

Another incredible act of rule-breaking, of course, was its controversial “Go Further” spot this year — 60 seconds of advertising that never once revealed Ford’s name, or even its logo. Instead, it asked viewers to check out, all part of the effort to prove to consumers the brand is willing to take that spirit of reinvention to just about any level.

The Sedan Strikes Back

But perhaps its biggest play is the Fusion, an attempt to “take the American garage back from Camry.” Midsize sedans, which account for roughly a quarter of auto sales, have typically been kind of a snooze for car lovers. So Ford created fun campaigns, including its Random Acts of Fusion, giving one person 100 Fusions, which then needed to be given away. The story unfolded online, with Ryan Seacrest, as well as Joel McHale and Kate Micucci in documentary-style videos.

And it has found smarter approaches to consumer segments, like lasering a Fusion out of a block of concrete during the recitation of the late Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose that Grew from Concrete,” aimed at African-Americans. Or Red Bull-sized cup holders in Ford Fiestas. Or the Mustang Customizer on Xbox.

And, of course, there’s the much-buzzed about retooling of the Lincoln brand, starting with its new MKZ.

Each initiative, though, addresses the issue of shopping for cars, including talking about cars with others. “The key thing for us is location-based advertising. So, for us, mobile is going to be very transactional, and we have to have a creative design that works on all devices.”

Social media is a component of each effort, “which means you’ve got to listen. And listening is the one thing that has allowed us to transform our brand.”

And beyond its marketing achievements, Ford is also making news by making money, something that’s been scarce in Detroit: In its most recent quarterly results, Ford’s operating margin in North America was 12 percent, the highest since the company began breaking out regional margins in 2000, reports the Detroit News. GM’s was 7.8 percent, down 2.2 percentage points from the same period a year before. And Chrysler, which does not break out margins by region, reports an overall 4.6 percent operating margin. 

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