Ford Death Watch 47: Taurus! Taurus! Taurus!

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

By all accounts, the refreshed Ford Taurus is an excellent car. Easy-to-drive, economical, well-built, comfortable, capacious and handsome. As a sign of its pre-launch success, the vehicle’s critics are focusing on its sticker price. As a firm believer that something is worth exactly what someone will pay for it, it remains to be seen if Ford’s priced the refreshed Taurus out of the market. Meanwhile and in any case, Taurus Gen 6 won’t “save” Ford like the 1986 model. The 2010 Taurus may be a singular automobile, but it is not a signature automobile. To survive in today’s crowded, shrunken, hyper-competitive new car market, Ford needs vehicles that clearly differentiate the brand from the competition; and marketing to match. Ford recognizes the problem but fails to rectify it.

“Drive the Ford Difference.” Well, exactly. But what is the Ford difference? Even as The Blue Oval Boyz spend millions promoting their latest brand slogan, they continue to struggle with its meaning. The tag line’s tortuous evolution indicates their inveterate indecision. Lest we forget, “Drive the Ford Difference” has just replaced “Drive One,” which replaced a farrago of consumer exhortations: “Drive Quality,” “Drive Safe,” “Drive Green,” “Drive Smart.” Ford’s gone from pick a slogan, to an anti-slogan, to guess the slogan. The Glass House Gang is in real danger of descending into inscrutable, Coke-like zen koans (i.e., Ford is).

This is Ford CEO Alan Mulally’s Achilles heel, and you can see the protruding arrow. In terms of manufacturing process, Big Al has cleaned house: eliminating much of the corporate behemoth’s sloth, waste, fraud, duplication, bureaucracy, indecision, intransigence, etc. The $25 million man (first year) has also been lucky enough to prove that it’s better to be lucky than smart. The company’s rep is riding high on its decision to shun the federal bailout buffet—ignoring the fact that it only did so to protect to Ford family control and recently tapped a $5.9 billion, no-interest, taxpayer-provided “retooling loan.” More to the point, Big Al has done nothing to save the Ford brand.

Automotive branding—deciding what vehicles to build, how to build them and how to sell them—requires what George Bush famously called “the vision thing.” Mulally’s administration suffers from a failure to synthesize. In other words, truck buyers know the F-150 is built Ford tough (complete with its own logo). But how do you link that selling point with the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid’s claim that it’s “the most fuel-efficient midsize sedan in America®”?

Or the Mustang head vs. heart, heart wins campaign? And how does that jive with the Dirty Jobs guy’s claim that the Fusion beats the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord for quality? Meanwhile, the poor (but excellent) Ford Explorer is reduced to promoting roll-over protection while the Edge urges you to “drive past gas stations faster.”

Note: it doesn’t matter if any of these selling points are true. They’re just too damn many of them. The Ford brand stands for everything and nothing at the same time.

No surprise there. Big Al inherited a failing automaker rife with warring fiefdoms: corporate enclaves defined by country, brand, product, specialty and, of course, personal loyalty. Ford’s undeniable product excellence is not the result of a overarching corporate effort in any one direction; it’s the offshoot of individual pockets of excellence working to equally admirable but largely uncoordinated ends.

No question: Mulally has moved the entire organization towards a less inchoate structure; one where employees understand that they must reconcile personal ambition with what they have to do for the “greater good.” Unfortunately, efficiency is not a rallying cry upon which great organizations—or brands—are built.

Sure, Toyota gets maximum props (from Big Al as well) for its lean manufacturing system. But it’s product reliability that defines the Toyota brand for both its workers and consumers. Blessed with an overarching brand promise, ToMoCo is free to fuck up and recover. The FJ Cruiser may be a misbegotten platypus of an off-roader, but it didn’t ding the public’s understanding of the Toyota brand.

Bereft of focused, coherent and compelling branding, Ford has an almost infinite number of ways to fail. And few ways to recover. The Flex? What was that all about? How about, say, any Lincoln product? The Lincoln brand? Volvo? Mercury?

Quality, safety, fuel efficiency, technology, luxury, value. Must. Choose. One. Once that’s done, Ford has to build cars that embody that brand promise better than anyone else in the market—regardless of the cost. As I said when I drove the execrable, warmed-over Focus, Ford can’t afford to make money. Not when their brand is in such dire jeopardy. They should cut their portfolio to the bone, choose a shtick and use it to beat everyone in the entire company. And then sell the beJesus out of it. Relentlessly. Endlessly.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • Armadamaster Armadamaster on Jun 29, 2009

    Ford's neglect of once successful vehicles to this day like Ranger, Grand Marquis, Town Car, is down right criminal, and I have seen Mulally do nothing to correct this other than try and further limit their sales in favor of unproven products.

  • Rada Rada on Jun 30, 2009
    Anybody can build a safe car nowadays, and it is expected that a car can last 100,000+ miles Umm, no, not really. I want 100K trouble-free miles, not just any 100K miles. This is where Toyota shines btw.
  • Varezhka The biggest underlying issue of Mitsubishi Motors was that for most of its history the commercial vehicles division was where all the profit was being made, subsidizing the passenger vehicle division losses. Just like Isuzu.And because it was a runt of a giant conglomerate who mainly operated B2G and B2B, it never got the attention it needed to really succeed. So when Daimler came in early 2000s and took away the money making Mitsubishi-Fuso commercial division, it was screwed.Right now it's living off of its legacy user base in SE Asia, while its new parent Nissan is sucking away at its remaining engineering expertise in EV and kei cars. I'd love to see the upcoming US market Delica, so crossing fingers they will last that long.
  • ToolGuy A deep-dive of the TTAC Podcast Archives gleans some valuable insight here.
  • Tassos I heard the same clueless, bigoted BULLSHEET about the Chinese brands, 40 years ago about the Japanese Brands, and more recently about the Koreans.If the Japanese and the Koreans have succeeded in the US market, at the expense of losers such as Fiat, Alfa, Peugeot, and the Domestics,there is ZERO DOUBT in my mind, that if the Chinese want to succeed here, THEY WILL. No matter what one or two bigots do about it.PS try to distinguish between the hard working CHINESE PEOPLE and their GOVERNMENT once in your miserable lives.
  • 28-Cars-Later I guess Santa showed up with bales of cash for Mitsu this past Christmas.
  • Lou_BC I was looking at an extended warranty for my truck. The F&I guy was trying to sell me on the idea by telling me how his wife's Cadillac had 2 infotainment failures costing $4,600 dollars each and how it was very common in all of their products. These idiots can't build a reliable vehicle and they want me to trust them with the vehicle "taking over" for me.