Ford Motor Company yesterday announced that it has hired Jim Farley, most recently the U.S. boss of Lexus and previously the marketing manager for Toyota who supervised the launch of the Scion line, as its new marketing manager. His title will be “Chief Marketing and Communications Officer.”
As a follow-up to that story, the Detroit Free Press today offers a bylined article by one of its business writers, Sarah Webster, in which the failure of the reintroduced Taurus is offered up as an example of the failures and ineffectiveness of the current Ford marketing department. Dealers are quoted as dissatisfied with the Ford advertising campaign for the car, which centered on its safety: “The All-New Taurus: Rated the Safest Full-Size Car in America.”
But Ford’s marketing department seems to be taking a bum rap. When management starts scapegoating people for the consequences of decisions made by others, it is a sign that the management is not facing up to the real problems and, so, cannot possibly solve them.
Upon taking charge at Ford a little more than a year ago, Alan Mulally quickly concluded that the Ford 500 had been a marketing mistake. The Taurus brand had “equity,” albeit tarnished by years as the number one rental car and used rental car in America. Still, launching the new Ford sedan meant the company would have to create a product identity from scratch. Perhaps, Ford’s original thought had been that the Taurus name was so damaged that it wasn’t worth trying to resurrect. Mulally thought differently and the result was the relaunch of the Taurus.
The result? Taurus sales in September were 30% below the sales of the 500 in the same period last year – and the sales of the 500 last year were awful. Moreover, since the new Taurus was launched in June, Ford has doubled rebates on the car. Worse, from Ford’s perspective is this: currently, the average Taurus buyer is 61 years old.
Perhaps it is fair to level some criticism at Ford’s marketing, but it shouldn’t be taking all, or even most, of the blame. That’s the same marketing department that has been pitching the truck as “Ford Tough,” an advertising theme which has been reasonably effective over the years. They may have somewhat dropped the ball on the Taurus, but look what they were given to work with.
The Taurus is not, contrary to the new ad theme, “all-new.” It is a mildly face-lifted 500. Calling an old car “new” is an old Detroit stunt, but and has always been a sign of the manufacturer’s desperation. A name may attract a buyer’s attention, but it is the merits of the car and the extent to which those merits suit the values of the buyer that sells the car. Those merits can be style, prestige, luxury, value, reliability, economy – even safety. (Volvo proved that.) But there has to be one singular unique attribute in which the car excels, around which an image can then be created. If there isn’t, there is really nothing to sell, in the end, except price.
The problem for the Taurus is that it really has no distinctive merits. It has a bland style, one that appears copied from German cars introduced so long ago that the Ford’s styling appears almost dated. (As does that of the Saturn Aura, which has also experienced disappointing sales.) It’s a Ford, which pretty much eliminates prestige as a selling point. Though the Taurus/500 gets decent mileage, it’s no Prius. It’s not exceptional in any of its interior appointments. Fords certainly don’t have a reputation for reliability and the rapid depreciation of their products eliminates the possibility that any new Ford will be a great value.
So, the ad department went with their strongest suit, weak as it might be: safety. That they were given nothing else with which to work wasn’t their fault. They didn’t style the car. They didn’t decide how it would be engineered, equipped, or priced. They were just given the job of selling it. Even in the advertising, Ford stinted. While GM budgets $50 million to get the new Cadillac CTS into the public’s collective consciousness, Ford tried to milk the media for publicity to support the 500’s introduction, rather than support it with an all-out, take-no-prisoners ad campaign at a time when the car actually was “al-new.”
Granted, these mistakes weren’t made by Mulally. He wasn’t there when the car was designed and he’s stuck with the thing for the next several years. But blaming the Taurus’ fate on the marketing department is too easy. That car exists as it does because Ford’s management chose not to build a better, more exciting, more advanced, or more stylish car. It is the product of a mindset that seeks adequacy, not excellence, and to avoid risks rather than take them.
Both Ford and Chrysler have recently poached top Toyota marketing guys to become high-level executives at their companies. But the experience these gentlemen had at Toyota may not be the cure-all the companies are seeking. Toyota gave them a car with very distinctive attributes fixed in the public mind: value and reliability. That Toyota’s quality has slipped badly in the last several years, to the point that it recalled more cars than it sold here last year, shouldn’t be any comfort to Ford. It just shows how long it takes for a reputation, once established, to change. Ford also has an established reputation, but it is not the one the company wants, even though it is one the company has earned.
Of course, at this point the only thing Ford can do with the Taurus is try to sell it. When cars don’t sell, car companies hire new ad agencies, and hiring a new advertising boss is not much different. Maybe a fresh perspective will do better, they’re probably thinking. As far as it goes, hiring a new ad guy is neither brilliant nor stupid. It’s just predictable.
But unless Mulally can change the culture at Ford that’s responsible for having elected to produce the 500/Taurus, it’s new marketing boss has no better chance than Willie Loman.