Bill Ford's Selling White Bread Turkey Sandwiches

David Kiley

It took me a few days to catch up with the new corporate ad campaign from Ford Motor Co. starring chairman and CEO Bill Ford. But I don’t feel like a missed anything. You haven’t either if you haven’t seen them yet.
In the ads, Bill Ford, the great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford who took control of the company in October 2001, casually sits on a stool in a design studio and talks about the company's commitment to "driving innovation.” In fact, the vanilla theme of the campaign is “Driving American Innovation.” Apparently, some other company had the copyrights to “Driving A New American Paradigm.”
The first problem with the ads is that any company selling a product or service could have claimed this line. If the line can relate to any company then why spend hard earned money on it. Paging the copywriters! Who wrote this? Bill’s chauffer?
Bill Ford talks about Ford’s environmentally friendly vehicles that are powered by hybrid gasoline-electric engines and those that can run on ethanol. Ethanol is made from grain, and hardly any stations sell it. Ford and other manufacturers have engineered cars to run scarce ethanol in large part so they can bank government credits for doing so that makes it easier to sell more gas guzzler SUVs. Ford says he is "dramatically ramping up" that commitment to get "this country less dependent upon foreign oil."
In the ads, we see scenes such as: The exterior of the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn at dusk; a man pulling a flat of flowers from the back of a hybrid Ford Escape SUV; workers loading bales of hay into the bed of a Ford pickup; families traveling around town in the Escape; a multicultural group of young Ford employees at a drawing table. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Chatter from Ford insiders in recent months informs me that the company has been dithering over a communications strategy: To be known as the greenest carmaker in Detroit? Or somehow get the idea across that the standards of safety in design established by Volvo are being adopted by all of Ford. For those of you who don’t know, Ford owns Volvo.
Frankly, I thought the two strategies working together would have been a good move, supported by a bold communications campaign. But while Ford flicks at the Volvo strategy in some of the ads—vaguely linking Volvo’s safety track record with Ford--he didn’t go all the way. Ford bean-counters told him that Ford could not afford to let Volvo’s safety engineers and designers set the engineering standards for the whole company. It would be too expensive. Ford Explorer engineers, for example, could not be held accountable to adopt the roof strength and rollover standards of the Volvo XC90.
Too bad, for such a move would have shown genuine leadership. Imagine: every engineer and purchasing executive in the company would be on the same page about a marketing and brand direction. So, we are left with Ford being an “innovation driven” company, and aspiring to be the greenest company in Detroit. Being the greenest company in Detroit is like marketing yourself as the best woman lawyer to ever graduate from a Texas law school.