Ford Faces Formidable Challenges With F-150

Ford truck Ford will face a world of challenges when it rolls out its redesigned 2009 F-150 pickup truck next month: the economy, severely pinching consumers' predilection for high-end spending; the price of gasoline, and plummeting housing starts.

And, oh, yeah--Dodge has just launched its own redesigned Ram pickup. Ford's truck has traditionally dwarfed sales of Dodge Ram; the F-150, Toyota, Nissan, Dodge, Chevy and GMC notwithstanding, has been the best-selling truck in the U.S. for the past 31 years and until last year was the best vehicle of any kind in the U.S. But Doug Scott, Ford truck marketing manager, says Ford is going after a different customer.

"They are going in a different direction. We divide the market into core truck buyers--both commercial and recreational users--and then the image buyers who rarely or never use towing or payload capabilities. What we have learned is that people who are the most resilient customers are core truckers; our real strength base is them," he says. "Dodge, Toyota, and Nissan's strength has been in the image part of the market, and it appears that Dodge is in that direction." He says the central proposition with the 2009 F-150 is "no compromise," referring to better fuel economy without a compromise in performance and power. "That is what our core truck buyers want," he says.



Ford says the new truck, on sale next month, has an 8% to 12% improvement in fuel economy. The company is also bowing a version called F-150 SFE (for "superior fuel economy") that gets 21 mpg highway. The new F-150 also has a fuel shut-off feature in which the engine automatically shuts off on deceleration, when the driver releases the accelerator. Ford's suggested price for the vehicle ranges from $21,320 to the Platinum edition at $41,415.

Scott says F-150 sales have been consistent with the segment, which has not been good. He notes that F-150 sales are off 25% through August versus the first eight months last year. "Fuel prices, credit markets and housing starts are highly correlated with the full-sized pickup business." But he adds that one contributor--albeit a small one--to slow sales is that since Ford showed the new truck in January, "there are a number of people who would have decided to wait for the new truck, so we expect there to be some pent-up demand for it."

"Even with the pickup truck segment being down to 1.6 million vehicles [this year], this is still the third-largest segment in the market, with a robust business." He says the F-150 currently represents about 25% of Ford volume.

Scott says the main target is the current F-150 owner base. "We have nine million units in operation, so it's a huge owner field. Given external challenges--we don't have much control over fuel prices--the real key for us will be to put together compelling stories around the truck's features." He says, for example, that marketing will highlight the Super Crew version's cab, which has been extended six inches for more passenger and cargo carrying room, and a flat load floor.

Also getting ad focus will fuel economy, plus on-board functional and entertainment gadgetry like Ford Sync, and Sirius satellite radio.

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