Ford: Built for the Brand Ahead?

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
ford built for the brand ahead

So, Ford has a new guck. I only caught a few seconds of the ad touting The Blue Oval's "Grand Unifying Concept", but I'm reasonably sure Mr. Bill promised that, from now on, all Ford motor products will be known for… innovation. Should reality somehow mirror hype, Ford's eight brands will heretofore produce cutting edge vehicles that do way cool stuff that will make both consumers and the competition sit up and say "Whoa, Dude!" Maybe, but I reckon innovation is as likely to save FoMoCo as a GM buyout.

For one thing, most people view innovation (a.k.a. change) as only slightly more desirable than hepatocellular carcinoma. Automobilists don't want to drive the radical new machine bristling with innovative technology and design. They want the same car as the one they're driving, only a bit newer. How else could you explain the fact that GM continues to sell cars that are two product cycles behind the competition– to the same people who bought one before? Sure, automakers put a lot of gee-whizzery in mass market motors, but there are still a large number of motorists who'd rather celebrate their birthday at the Registry of Motor Vehicles than program a sat nav system.

You don't need to own a Brush Motor Company friction drive car to know that automotive history is littered with manufacturers who went out on a technological limb that snapped beneath them. Even successful carmakers regularly fall prey to feature sleep. When BMW's 7-Series introduced its pioneering iDrive [you nuts] mouse controller, the system flummoxed the faithful and alienated aspirants. When GM created an SUV with a power roof section above the cargo bay, the advance was met with spectacular apathy (save waterproof grandfather clock collectors). Bill Gates may be sniffing around the auto world, but he does so at his peril.

In fact, the more innovative the automobile, the less saleable it is. For every pistonhead who feels enriched by the latest engineering brainwave, for every Ferrari owner beta testing kludgy software and clever-but-dainty mechanicals, there are a million consumers who understand that the last thing you want in a 4000lbs. piece of metal hurling itself through a world of solid objects is unreliable– I mean "innovative" technology. Besides, you'd think that Ford has suffered enough product recalls without reinventing the wheel, and everything attached.

And then there's the cost. If Ford is serious in their newfound determination to boldly go where CAD-CAM computers make treads, they're going to have to plow a lot more of Mr. Bill's inheritance into research and development. To stay ahead of the technological curve in every automotive technology– from fuel cells to LED lighting– Ford would have to spend Portugal's gross national product on Xtreme engineering. Per year. Technologists will argue about the difference between in-yer-face innovation and behind-the-scenes boffinology, but splitting hairs isn't going to save anyone any money. No matter how you program it into you spreadsheet, high tech costs big bucks.

Innovation asunder, you've can't blame Mr. Bill for wanting to tell consumers why they should buy from the family firm. The 80's motto "Quality is Job One" certainly helped pull Ford back from the brink the last time 'round. Unfortunately, Lexus now owns that piece of real estate. More worryingly, Toyota's snagged reliability (with Hyundai in hot pursuit) AND innovation (by Prius engagement). Honda has bagged the quality engineering gig, GM lives (and dies) on the cheap, DCX does bling, Porsche is performance, Audi loves luxury, BMW is bitchin' and Mercedes still snobs-out. Ford is left wandering in brand image wasteland.

As someone who's good with the guck, I offer the following suggestion: safety. While performance and style grab the headlines and make marketeers feel macho as Hell, the average motorist is motivated by more prosaic concerns: their social, physical and financial security. Any car that protects their personal status quo is in with a chance. Under that remit, the term 'safety' encompasses design, handling, braking, traction control, ergonomics, repairs, finance, etc. So yes, an Aston could be a 'safe supercar'. Lincolns and Jaguars could feature all that expensive hi-tech safety stuff, like heads-up displays and cruise control radar. Mazda could embody nimble safety. Land Rover would be the off-roader that gets you there… and back. (Volvo's a done deal and Mercury can go fish.) Whether you're blasting in an Aston or fooling around in a Ford, the Blue Oval's got your back.

Sound familiar? GM flirted with a company-wide safety campaign earlier this year. Of course, The General's ADD reasserted itself and the safety guck disappeared. So the way is clear for Ford to refine and sell its entire product range under the overarching brand umbrella of safety– from the cars themselves through to the ownership experience. Mr. Bill could even make it hip. Safe! OK, it may not be the sexiest answer to Ford's imagectomy, but it is the safest.

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 1 comment
  • Peeryog OK , my fault. But there were a number of inadvertent scatalogical references in the original post. To which, having the intellectual maturity of a 12 year old boy, I snickered.
  • Ajla People that buy a new Silverado or Sierra without a V8 are like the people that get salmon at Peter Luger.
  • MKizzy The Mazda 6 wagon needs to be brought here pronto. Sexy looks aside, it would look less out of place in Mazda's CUV lineup vs the sedan, and since Mazda wants to go "premium," wagon customers tend to be the most affluent (if Daimer-Benz is to be believed). My second choice is the attractive Hyundai i40 wagon, which would replace the defunct VW Sportwagon in the small/mid size wagon niche.
  • Carlson Fan GM needs new leadership. A 9000lb off-road vehicle???? Don't get that thing stuck in a remote area.Imagine if they had brought back the iconic K5 Blazer name and built something to compete with the Wrangler like Ford did with the Bronco. They could have offered that with an electric power train in addition to the gas models. Ford may have some quality issues right now but whoever is steering that ship knows what they are doing. The Bronco & Maverick where both brilliant ideas.
  • Carlson Fan "But it does give General Motors an opportunity to dangle a diesel in front of the faces of consumers and presumably one that yields better gas mileage than the 6.2-liter V8 they’d otherwise be buying."I'll take the 6.2 thank you. The diesel offers some advantages over gas if you use the truck for towing, lower total cost of ownership isn't one of them. I'll add in the gas engine offers better long term reliability & cold weather performance if you live where it snows like me.