Ford Death Watch 43: Drive One… What?

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"Ford on a good day is always about the people," declared Jim Farley, group vice president of Ford marketing and communications. Like many of these pre-digested pronouncements, Farley’s seemingly innocuous, feel-good assertion is fraught with unintentional meaning. What does Farley mean by “Ford on a good day?” What’s Ford about on a BAD day? Is Ford bi-polar? Manic depressive? Does it forget to take its meds? And what about the contradiction between “on a good day” and “always?” And, most damning of all, Ford is NOT about the people. It’s about the product.

I know: cars don’t build people, people build cars. I have consistently and persistently argued that corporate culture ultimately determines an automaker’s success or failure in the marketplace. A public declaration of respect for your workers is never a bad thing. And there’s nothing inherently wrong (or innovative) with Farley exhorting FoMoCo’s extended family to move the metal; the alleged point of his “Drive One” marketing campaign. The problem is, once again, one of subtext and nuance.

Drive One’s underlying assumption: Ford has won– or at least drawn level– in the battle to build desirable products. Hence the recently launched national ads trumpeting the fact that Ford’s initial build quality is now “as good as Toyota’s.” This may be true, but it’s not particularly motivational. In fact, the statement does more to draw attention to and underline Toyota’s reputation for quality than give potential Ford customers a unique and persuasive reason to switch to The Blue Oval. For this, Ford relies on Microsoft’s SYNC gizmo, whose exclusivity is set to expire.

Ford’s Drive One campaign is based on the same “chip on our shoulder” attitude that’s bedeviled the domestics’ thinking for the last decade or more: our vehicles don’t suck, people just THINK they suck because they're American products (excluding the Mexican, South Korean, Belgian and Australian thing). But don’t take my word for it. "It's a marketer's dream to be here right now because the reality doesn't match up with perception," John Felice, Ford-brand general marketing manager, told Automotive News. "It's that gap between reality and perception that this whole thing is designed to close."

Unfortunately, Ford dealers are down with that. "It's incredibly frustrating to be a Ford dealer and know we have the best showroom we've had and yet we don't have people coming in to consider us," says Ford-Lincoln-Mercury franchise owner Jeff Robberson. "The need for this campaign was huge." Robberson’s contention that Ford has the best showroom they’ve ever had completely ignores the other guys’ product lineup, and fails to provide a compelling reason for customers to darken his doors.

So here we are again. Rather than concentrating on making their products unassailable, or at least choosing a unique selling point and sticking with it, Ford’s marketing efforts are once again [still] focused on its customer’s supposedly ignorance, perceived bias and, let’s face it, stupidity. If anything, the Ford campaign’s stridency– “Drive One” as opposed to “Have you driven a Ford lately?”– indicates a hardening of the automaker’s indefensible, defensive position.

The “get your ass behind the wheel of one of our cars and then you’ll see why you should buy one” marketing strategy completely ignores important buying considerations: long-term build quality, depreciation (i.e. total cost of ownership), dealer service and, of course, comparative product excellence. Ford made a stab at this crucial component with its rigged Car & Driver pimpatorial comparo, then abandoned it for… this. Which is what? A farrago of ad messages wrapped-up in a command to take a test drive.

The wider, ultimate question remains unanswered: why? Why should anyone test drive a Ford? Even more crucially, what exactly is a Ford?

It doesn’t really matter how Farley’s followers implement the Drive One campaign (human viral marketing is, if nothing else, cheap). It doesn’t even matter if more people take a Ford for a spin in the next month than the previous six. When considering Ford’s chances of survival, the central and damning fact is that [ironically enough] Drive One focuses on four product areas: quality, safety, environmentally friendly initiatives and technology. That’s three too many.

You don’t have to be a professional branding guru to know you shouldn't market a product based on four disparate selling points (at least not without a single unifying concept). But it was my understanding that Jim Farley answers to that job description. Ford poached Farley from that most focused of car companies (Toyota) at tremendous expense, presumably to apply his proven expertise to Ford’s sagging fortunes. And yet it seems as if Farley’s new employer’s lack of focus (both figurative and literal) has infected his thinking.

Not to put too fine a point on it, “Drive One” is the same old shit in a different wrapper.

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  • Landcrusher Landcrusher on Apr 16, 2008

    Every time I go to the shop, I have to sort through the new faces to find my guy!

  • Shaker Shaker on Apr 17, 2008

    umterp85: I'm happy that you've had a good experience at your dealer's service dept... I had no complaints when I brought my 1990 Escort GT with 5k miles on it to John Coxon Ford (in Harmarville; now Shults Ford) for a valve lifter replacement under warranty. They were courteous and efficient; but that's old news. The new "Shults" Ford is one of the the last of several dealers of that name (two were closed last year); and now is a "Ford, Lincoln and Mercury" store. If they hadn't changed the Focus (for the worse, IMHO), I still would have had trepidations about the dealer being in existence through the warranty period -- Ford's restructuring has no contract with a customer that likes a "local" dealership.

  • EBFlex They are getting rid of the Charger and Challenger for a modern day Neon?just end it Dodge, you had a great run
  • Garrett Frankly, I don’t understand why some of the manufacturers haven’t lobbied for more areas, or built their own. Imagine being able to access a local Jeep park, at a reasonable membership fee. Or a Land Rover one for a lot more. That’s money worth throwing down.
  • Lou_BC Developing "off-road parks" in areas with higher populations and a lack of public access land would be a good idea. It would be great to be paired with licensed off-road instructors. Set up costs would be relatively low. I took an entry level off-road course a few years ago with my son's Cherokee. It was fun. I'd like to take a winching course and an advanced driving course.
  • ToolGuy If you want a new Toyota, plan to buy it in the next 4 years.
  • ToolGuy The real question is - with all the value they add and all the sacrifices they make - do automotive journalists make too little. 😉