Ford: Bold Moves Sink Ships

ford bold moves sink ships

I've never run a multi-billion dollar multi-national car company. But I've driven hundreds of cars, and every car I drive tells me everything I need to know about the company that builds it. Literally. What do I need to know about GM's product development process that I can't glean from the Solstice's fiddly roof? What can Daimler-Chrysler's flackmeisters tell me about the company's strategy that I can't appreciate by hammering an SRT-8? What does BMW have to say that their X3 doesn't? And how can I be expected to take Ford's "Bold Moves" campaign seriously after driving a Ford 500?

Someone forgot to tell Billy Ford that everything– sales, service, marketing, the money in his pocket– starts with product. First you build cars, trucks and SUV's that do one thing better than anyone else, THEN you market them according to their unique selling point. If you want to sell ultimate driving, start by making damn sure all your vehicles ride and handle better than anything else in their segment (Boxster-beater my eye). If you're selling safety, begin by building cars that get five stars in all crash categories (S40 four-star rollover rating my toches). If you're starting an American revolution, it's probably best to sell cars built in America. And if you want to be known as bold…

In one Ford TV ad, a mother and daughter jump into a swimming hole. After affirming their generational courage, they motor off in a Ford Escape– a vehicle so generic I wouldn't be surprised to find one for sale at Costco. The Ford 500, Explorer, Fusion, Freestar, Freestyle, Focus, Crown Victoria, Sport Trac, F150 and even the spiffy new(ish) Mustang GT are about as far from bold as you can get without hiding behind a rock. (The Ford GT was Starbuck's bold blend bold, but they killed it.) You could argue that that Ford's current management team inherited this less-than-audacious product portfolio, and that the Bold Moves campaign is more of a promise than a come-on. But you don't have to be a Times Square pimp to know you don't talk the talk before you walk the walk.

In fact, Ford's Bold Move message borders on self-parody: be bold and buy a vehicle from a car company struggling for survival. Anyway, we've been here before. Back in November, I suggested that Ford's customers want an innovative vehicle (the automaker's last marketing mantra) about as much as they want an innovative toaster. What bright spark at FoMoCo suddenly decided that the company's core clientele have moved on, from a non-existent desire for technological gee-whizzery to an equally fantastic desire for personal attention? Hey, I'm all for car companies taking risks. But I'm the kind of guy who lusts after a '71 Buick Riviera 'boat tail;' a machine whose bold design did nothing whatsoever to revive Buick's fortunes.

I understand the genesis of Ford's BM. It started with new Ford boss Mark Fields' "Red, White and Bold" shtick. Somewhere between the focus meetings and the Kool-Aid filled water cooler, the campaign's patriotic thrust got ditched for the "There's only way we're gonna get out of this mess: take some chances." Which is fair enough. Ford's survival does indeed depend on losing their 'play it safe and fail upwards' mentality. They need to take a chainsaw to their stifling bureaucracy and moribund product line. But they're a mainstream motor manufacturer, not friggin' Ferrari. Their customers are deeply, fundamentally, inherently, genetically conservative people whose prime motivation is to avoid risk, not make bold (i.e. risky) moves.

You want bold moves? Kill Jaguar. Kill Mercury. Sell Volvo. Sell Mazda. Sell Land Rover. Cut half the remaining models and plow money into the ones that survive. Re-invigorate your rear-wheel drive, box-frame car with new sheetmetal, a bad-ass motor and a killer cabin. Build a world-beating Lincoln luxury sedan. Make the Ford Focus the world's best small car. Get the Explorer's mileage into the mid-20's. Develop a more powerful engine than the Hemi and stick it into everything– including a new minivan. Set SVT loose on the entire model line-up. OWN quality interiors. Don't badge engineer ANYTHING.

Lose the glass fishbowl; redesign Ford showrooms to look like a modern retail outlet. Trim the dealer network and sell cars on the web. Undercut everyone's price with every vehicle. Interact with every single customer on a regular basis via internet. Institute no-haggle pricing. Make financing cheaper. Drop 80% of your print budget and dominate the web. Do it all, and do it all at once– regardless of cost. Then sell value for money. Ford: the best car money can buy.

I'd like to think that these ideas are on the table at Ford. I like to think that Billy Ford has the juice and the courage to reinvent his family business. And then I drive a Ford 500 and despair.

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