Q&A: Ford’s Jim Farley on Bailouts, Blogs and BRIC

You might say that Jim Farley has to keep both hands on the wheel these days. As the man who oversees global marketing for Ford Motor Co., Farley is also spearheading the launch of new vehicles like the Figo in India and, back here in the States, the much-blogged-about 2010 Fiesta — a “supermini” that’s racked up 10,000 orders even though a single car has yet to roll off the line. The car’s highway-mileage rating of 40 mpg probably has a lot to do with that interest, but Farley attributes it to a social media-backed campaign a year ahead of the official launch, and the blue oval’s ongoing push to make media dollars work more efficiently. (WPP Group’s Team Detroit is Ford’s lead shop.)

Farley, who first learned to lay marketing rubber at Toyota (in 2006, he was Brandweek’s Marketer of the Year), recently got on the line to talk about Ford’s shift to social media and how the company is faring as the sole U.S. automaker that’s not on life support.

Brandweek: What are the top three items on your to-do list right now?
Jim Farley:
I’d say No. 1 is launching all of our products globally. We’re really now in the height of our new product launch cycle, which we’ve accelerated. We’ve got the new Figo in India and the Fiesta that is now launching in the U.S. The other big function is providing a really good voice of the consumer in the product development system because as we’re globalizing, we’re identifying some really exciting new products that have one vision for the whole world. That’s new for our industry, which [prior to now] had regional products. The third is organizing our marketing functions across the globe so we eliminate waste. In the past, we’d have more than 20 different ad campaigns around the world. But as of now we’re one company — one Ford — we can’t afford to waste money on [marketing] just because it needs to be different.

The auto industry went through a major upheaval last year. Are things looking better to you now and for the rest of 2010?
Globally, the auto market is pretty vibrant. The BRIC [Brazil, Russia, India and China] countries are really expanding. We’re positioned very well to take advantage of those markets that are now in takeoff stage where people’s household incomes allow them to buy a car for the first time. In developed countries like the U.S., things are a little bit more sobering. We expect to see modest growth in the industry this year. Consumers are really looking for value and new products. That’s the one thing we noticed about our improvements in terms of brand and share and pricing — it’s really been around our new products. So, even though it’s challenging at an industry level compared to what it was three years ago, it’s really a good time to have the freshest lineup.

Ford was the only one of Detroit’s Big Three not to accept government and taxpayer bailout money. To what degree — if any — has that helped consumer perception of your brand?
We hear every day how much consumers appreciate the fact that we have transformed the company on our own. In fact, we’ve had customers send us money. One person sent us $10 just to say “Thank you” and for “doing it the old-fashioned way.” We wouldn’t trade places with anyone, and the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

Digital has rapidly become a big part of Ford’s focus. How would you characterize that progression?
Before I got here, Ford was the most aggressive in [digital media] in the auto space. One out of every four [dollars] we spend now is in digital. We’re really changing the way we spend money on digital, and it’s about coming up with great ways for people to experience our product and to give [them] the tools to share content with others.