Ford: The Customer is King… Still
On Wednesday, Ford Motor Company's freshly-minted Executive Vice President and President of the Americas took center stage at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show and declared that the customer is king. And there you have it: Ford's Way Forward. To his credit, Mark Fields admitted (in just about every way imaginable) that Ford has lost its way with American car buyers (in just about every way imaginable). Those of us hoping to hear the wunderkind's secret recipe for reclaiming faded Glory, for better serving Ford's collective majesties, were still left wondering if there's a Ford in our future…
At least Fields' speech centered on cars. Although Ford continues to enjoy a lengthy and profitable love affair with its truck buyers– the F-series sold more than 901,000 units this year and remains the top selling private vehicle in the U.S.– The House of Henry doesn't share GM's desperate faith in a resurgent light truck market. Ford recognizes that its financial salvation depends on reinvigorating its car business. And to get THAT side of the operation back in the black, Fields announced his intention to launch new products with bold, distinctly American designs and a large dose of "innovation"– the salve for all that ails a struggling manufacturer.
Fields asked his attentive audience to compare Ford's current doldrums with Apple and Motorola's recent past. According to Ford's new kid on the [chopping] block, both once-proud American consumer corporations were recently on the skids, heading towards acquisition, dismemberment and/or death. But lo and behold, they shine today! Why? They figured out what their customers wanted and made it for them. And they were bold. And they were innovative. And profits rose. And yea, they made their employees, dealers, distributors, stockholders and yes, presidents, wealthy and prosperous!
While few would dispute the broad outline of Fields' inspiring tale of corporate comeback, it's important to note that both Apple and Motorola have a long history of bold marketing and innovative products. Both of these firms have made some huge missteps, but they pale in comparison with the gigantic mistakes made by Ford's plodding, doddering bureaucracy, especially during Detroit's Dark Ages (e.g. buying Jaguar, neglecting the Taurus, stonewalling the Explorer roll-over, etc.) In any event, you could hardly say that Ford's inexorable move away from cars and towards ladder frame trucks was either bold or innovative.
Like a long-term alcoholic, Fields now promises that this time things will be different. From now on, Ford will listen and respond to its customers' needs quickly and efficiently, with true capitalistic creativity. There's even an internal rallying cry for Ford's New Think: Red, White and Bold. With this patriotic, take-no-prisoners mantra in place, Fields promised that Ford will succeed in the good old-fashioned American way, as opposed to "trying to out-Korean the Koreans" (whatever that means).
More specifically, Fields believes his customers are bullish on crossovers, midsized sedans and small cars. Fields talked-up the forthcoming "Edge" crossover as a representation of Ford's newfound ability to build the cars America wants. The Fusion (a.k.a. the Mazda 6) remains Ford's answer to the question "Why not an Accord?" while Fields told his none-too-stunned audience that small cars are increasingly popular with young people. "Small cars are ripe for bold design and innovation," Fields said, adding that "no American manufacturer is putting a stamp on small cars."
As he headed for his conclusion, and his next gig at The Mother of All Auto Shows, Fields indulged in a final fillip of flag-waving. "Many brands want to be American," Fields asserted. "However, there is no uniquely and consistently American brand in the auto industry."
Obviously, Ford's Boy King wants to leave us believing that his employer will fill this neglected role. Yes but… Fields had nothing substantive to say about the exact nature of "an American brand". Surely the days when bold design and technological innovation set American cars apart from their foreign competitors are long gone. Of course, focusing on these issues has the benefit of drawing attention away from more politically-explosive questions: how much of any "American" Ford will be designed and built using American parts and workers? How is Ford an "American brand" when five of the eight brands in its corporate stable are foreign?
Anyone seeking clarification on these issues is bound to be disappointed. And even if you're feeling Fields' love (of customer-centered hi-tech), it may be a long time before the result appears in a showroom near you. Fields' pronouncement that all the past corporate entanglements would be vanquished by Red, White and Bold sounds all well and good. But, as an independent marketing executive told me afterwards, auto show speeches are a lot like concept cars. They're all very sexy on the display stand, but once the design heads for the factory floor, things never quite turn out as planned.
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