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Road To Salvation?

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When faced with customer and dealer dissatisfaction, not to mention a tough year at the pumps, what's an ailing car manufacturer to do? Ford went for a change of attitude with its "Bold moves" campaign, a combination of transparent marketing (via Webisodes that feature, among other things, assessments of its past and present performances), emotional appeals (interviews with rank-and-file workers, profiles of everyday people) and product-oriented work with an emphasis on drivers rather than sheet metal.

Tom Cordner, then Ford's worldwide cd at its lead shop, JWT Detroit, recalls telling Mark Fields, Ford evp and president of the Americas, "If it truly is do or die for Ford, then ['Bold moves'] is your line."

BACKGROUND

Ford has been battered. Overall sales were down 5 percent at the end of 2005 to 2.6 million units. (At the end of 2004, the Ford brand was up 2 percent to 2.7 million vehicles.) The recruiting of president and CEO Alan R. Mulally last fall is an attempt by the company to turn around its fortunes.

Some consumers have not kept their negative feelings to themselves. Sites like FordLemon.com, claiming over a million visitors to "the official voice of dissatisfied Ford's customers," even pictured William Clay Ford, Jr. as Satan along the road to Dearborn ("666" miles away), and plays with long-running taglines ("Have you been screwed by Ford lately?").

Launched last June, "Bold moves" was an extension of the company's "red, white and bold" corporate positioning. It was to serve as both an external marketing slogan and an internal corporate philosophy. Without losing sight of the company's products, all communications were to show that Ford is making radical changes. The work was split between JWT Detroit, under Cordner and current ecd Toby Barlow, for the TV spots and print ads, and JWT New York, under the direction of CCO Ty Montague, for the Webisodes. (The inception of "Bold moves" precedes the formation of Ford's Team Detroit, which brought Ford's agencies under one roof this past January.)

STRATEGY

According to Barry Engle, gm of Ford Division marketing, "We went back to what was elemental about the brand. What are we? We were built Ford tough and we had the heritage of Mustang. Bold was the DNA of the brand. So the strategy was initially to forge an emotional connection with the customer instead of being vanilla ice cream. [Internally], it was supposed to give every employee at Ford a measuring stick by which they would critique their decision making."

He also maintains that the adoption of "Bold moves" helped Ford "begin to communicate in a far more disciplined way with a lot more consistency. Before, the brand teams were doing their own things."

Adds Cordner: "We would never walk away from product, but connect it to how people interact with the product in their lives—product focus with humanity. ... We knew 'Bold moves' must not be 'launch and abandon.' It was a shift to address where the company was going, not just a marketing strategy."

As for the Webisodes, they were designed to attract a younger demographic than is usually associated with Ford.

CREATIVE

In May 2006, the first print ad appeared in USA Today, Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The TV campaign, consisting of dozens of spots, launched May 2 on American Idol. (People were pictured doing everything from cutting their hair down to the skin to bull riding.) On June 27, fordboldmoves.com was launched. The 30 three- to six-minute Webisodes (at fordboldmoves.com) ran through January 2006 (and remain on display).

The Webisodes were created as a reality series designed to give people a look inside Ford's boardrooms and factory floor. Montague said the idea was to create an intimacy that would get consumers emotionally reinvested in a Ford comeback. They ranged from profiles of uber car designer Caroll Shelby, who has designed famous Fords in the past, to documenting Fields' struggles with the company's fortunes and Wall Street's perceptions.

The American people "love an underdog. That's us," says Fields in the inaugural episode, "Change or Die."

Nearly every episode contains corporate self-criticism. Episode 9 ("Go Fast") shows how turning the company's GT-H brand over to Shelby's independent shop reduced time to market from three years to three months. In it, Ford executives complain that the company is "a huge ship that takes forever to turn," and report dealer profitability at "an all-time low" leading to "low morale." In episode 10, former Ford president Edsel Ford calls the company's cars in the '80s "boring," and in episode 10, Bill Ford, now executive chairman, announces the company's $123 million second-quarter loss for 2006. In the final episode, 17,000 employees are shown prototypes of Ford's upcoming products (unseen by viewers), and Mulally says that having them gather around "one plan and a compelling vision" was "exhilarating."

The campaign's TV spots are less edgy than the Webisodes. Cordner notes that when selling a truck, for instance, like the F-150 series of pickups, it still makes sense to show how "tough" the brand is.

For the most part, the early spots pictured "Bold moves" by Ford drivers, such as a woman, picking up laundry in a drive-in who makes a move on the hunk behind her by paying his bill. Next came ads showcasing the product with a dollop of humor. A spot for the Ford Edge shows one driving on skyscraper ledges with two wheels suspended mid-air to a rock song, and offers a cheeky poke at legal disclaimers: "Yes, this is fantasy. Vehicles can't really drive on buildings." A Fusion ad attacks Japanese competition by name while touting "intelligent all-wheel drive."

RESULTS

The creative team says it did not expect instant turnaround—nor did it get it. The company's 2006 sales picture: overall down 8 percent from 2005 to 2.4 million units. But one analyst, Car Concept's Todd Turner, says Ford's situation appears deceptively dour. "If you fixed Explorer [down 25 percent over 2005], Ford would be looking pretty good," he says. "I do think the campaign is working and once you see more product to back up the marketing, such as the Ford Edge, it will demonstrate that Ford has already bottomed out and is on the way back to regaining profitable marketshare."

As reported by Ford, the Web site got 1.9 billion impressions since it started in June 2006, and 1.4 million unique visitors, averaging seven minutes, 40 seconds a stay. People who posted comments both love, hate and love to hate the Web series. One wrote, "Some people believe Ford has some kind of hidden agenda ... in producing these episodes. I ask you all this ... do you see anyone else airing out their dirty [laundry] for everyone to see?" Another wrote, "It seems like everyone at Ford is worried about how new vehicles are received, but what you all really need to worry about is the sustainability of models. It is not a revolutionary idea to stick with a vehicle and improve it."

According to Bill Stephenson, vp of automotive practice, BuzzMetrics, Aliso Viejo, Calif., "When the content started being posted on the Web site, there was commentary that it was not authentic. ... That improved over time. Ford took that criticism to heart, and you can tell that it is real. ... [Ford] did a good job of talking, and they're not so great about listening. But just the fact that they put it up is somewhat of a bold move-—it is a bit of a risk."

Ford also has gotten some of the competition to acknowledge the campaign. The voiceover for a DaimlerChrysler Dodge Nitro spot that launched in December and is still running compares various comical "bold" moves to "nitro" moves and concludes, "Bold is not enough."

Turner, however, says Ford's future is cloudy: "It's difficult to know where they are going next. They've got to let consumers get in sync with them."

""We have the plan, we have the products," notes Fields in the last of the year's Webisodes. "So it's up to us to make this happen."