In desperate need of an outsize hit to bolster slumping sales, Ford Motor (F) is hoping to reach a half-billion people over the holiday weekend with a marketing blitz introducing its new Edge crossover.
Ford hopes the Edge, which looks like an SUV but by virtue of its car-based platform has better handling and fuel economy, will attract customers bailing on truck-based vehicles like the once-popular Explorer. And the crossover market looks like a good bet to do just that. It's slated to grow to sales of 3 million units annually by 2010, up from a mere 500,000 six years ago.
Ford executives have said that, given the company's shaky financial picture, the new model's launch is likely the single most important one of the year (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/18/06, "First Drive: Ford's Edge").
The marketing offensive is a hit list of this year's most buzzworthy promotional concepts: social networking, user-generated Web sites, music sharing, and interactive digital advertising. A handful of new, targeted sites have been launched to reach audiences varying from the urban young to suburban empty-nesters. The plan includes traditional print, television, radio, and outdoor campaigns.
Ford wouldn't confirm the cost of the campaign. But trade publication Advertising Age estimates the outlay at about $80 million. Industry analysts say that such full-scale launches of new vehicles by manufacturers like Toyota (TM) and General Motors (GM) typically range between $50 million and $100 million.
The Edge's launch comes at a critical time and, whatever the sum, Ford certainly needs the campaign to translate into sales. Across the board, U.S. sales for all Ford brands dipped by 7.4% through last month to 2.68 million units. Growing environmental concerns and high fuel costs have caused sales of the company's most lucrative SUVs and trucks to tank, off 15.2% from last year.
Still, Ford's Edge will face several competitors. General Motors, Honda (HMC), Toyota, and Nissan already have well-established examples. Even Ford has had two crossovers on the market before the Edge: the slow-selling, wagon-like Freestyle and the Escape, which is sold as an SUV. New models, meanwhile, are due for market in 2008-2009 from Nissan, Volkswagen, and GM.
That competition could curb the Edge's possible success. Ford says it expects to sell 100,000 to 130,000 units annually. "If they'd done this a little earlier, when the brand was a bit stronger, they could have sold 200,000 units," says Wes Brown, president of Iceology, a Los Angeles-based automotive marketing firm. "But nowadays, with the brand as it is, the 100,000 figure is about right."
That's one reason Ford is putting so much into the public launch. "This is about changing the perception of our products," says Dave Sanabria, a spokesman for Ford's SUV and crossover unit. To do that, Ford is gearing up to pitch the Edge to every type of consumer it can, in every possible medium. The effort mixes traditional media buys with two new areas for the traditionally stodgy brand: high-tech Internet projects and a hard push to multicultural audiences (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/5/06, "Ford's New Drive: Marketing").
Widespread on the Web
Jeri Ward, the Edge's marketing manager, says it's the biggest digital launch Ford has ever produced, with multiple Web sites going live simultaneously. An Edge-branded MSN page allows users to contribute locations to visit—for driving, eating, or other activities—on an interactive map. Ford has also signed co-branding agreements with America Online (TWX), Yahoo! (YHOO), and Windows Live (MSFT) sites to lure tech-savvy consumers. And, of course, the Edge has a MySpace-like profile on the AOL AIM Pages community Web site.
Another site, www.fordurban.com, is central to Ford's multicultural push. That site is designed to showcase all Ford products with "street cred" alongside the Edge and caters to urban youth audiences. Besides product placement in video games and dedicated sites geared to mobile phones, targeted sponsorships include a gospel tour and a show car customized by Funkmaster Flex.
The company has also inked deals with pop stars catering to African, Asian, and Hispanic American audiences to further promote the new vehicle. Korean soap opera and pop star Ahn Jae Wook and hip hop diva Kelis have both signed on to produce Edge-inspired music for radio spots and downloads. Depending on the market where the ads are run, spots will be entirely in the target language, either English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, or Vietnamese. Ford has never produced content for a new vehicle in so many different languages.
Keeping It All in Sync?
Ward insists that it's possible to deliver a consistent message across all those projects, even as it pushes into traditional advertising, new media, and multicultural marketing simultaneously. "We have the opportunity to dial it up or dial it down depending on the audience," she says, "but the message is the same, 'Presenting the all-new Edge.' "
Nevertheless, some messages might seem incongruous with the billing Ford has given the Edge in the runup to the launch. First, the pricing, which ranges from just shy of $25,000 to more than $30,000, doesn't track to the youngest buyers. Until the launch, Ford executives also often described the car as ideal for aging boomers and empty nesters.
Analysts say the youth-oriented marketing can't hurt, though, and could eventually bring in new customers. Lonnie Miller, director of industry analysis at R.L. Polk, says anything Ford can do to make itself seem more relevant—whether on television, online, or in pitches geared toward different consumer groups—will help.
"The brand feel won't always match 100% with who's buying the vehicle," says Miller. "Wherever it comes from, positive association with one model that cascades to others is always a net plus."