Ford's Swipe At Toyota Sounds "Desperate"

Ford Motor Co. President of the Americas Mark Fields (pictured above)gave a speech at The Greater Los Angeles Auto Show on Jan 4 in which he laid out some ideas about focusing Ford’s marketing and brand images. Most of it made sense, and seemed like a breath of fresh air from a company long steeped in sales and finance executives who pay lip service to marketing.

But then there was this passage from the speech:

“Many brands want to be American. However, there is no uniquely and consistently American brand in the auto industry. Not yet. It’s interesting that Toyota is desperately trying to cast itself as an American brand. Toyota is trying to be American because they realize the market potential is huge. And Toyota has scored points by investing in the U.S. But that doesn’t make it an American brand. In fact, our research shows, the qualities that draw customers to Toyota vehicles are Japanese qualities. Again, I go back to the research that has validated our thinking at Ford. There remains a huge – and not yet fully realized – market for American cars in this country. It is waiting to be seized, consistently. Of all the leading automakers, I believe Ford has the strongest legacy claim to be ‘America’s Car Company.’ In part, it’s because of where we’ve been. In terms of economic and social influence, there is no other company that’s had a greater impact on the lives of people in this country and in the 20th century than Ford.”

Memo to Mr. Fields: Trying to criticize Toyota for flexing its American corporate citizenship through corporate advertising is a dog that doesn’t hunt outside the Detroit rust-belt corridor. Toyota has built several plants in the U.S., and employs tens of thousands of white collar and blue collar workers. Okay, that’s not as many as Ford, but Toyota is in a hiring mode, while Ford is cutting tens of thousands of jobs to get payroll in line with a shrunken market share. Toyota advertises these facts so that people will be aware of the investments it is making in the U.S. And consumers are beyond caring what percentage of Toyota parts that go into U.S. assembled Toyotas are coming from Japanese suppliers.

There is nothing “desperate” about this. What sounds desperate is criticizing the corporate ad campaign of a company that has long surpassed Ford in selling the top family sedan—the Camry (and how did Ford let that happen?), outsells Ford’s minivan (we thought Ford was the master of the American family car) and is closing in fast on Ford’s overall market share.

In an otherwise refreshing speech, which addressed Ford’s long-standing problem of putting marketing and brand management on roughly the same plane as glove box procurement, this passage stuck out like a busted muffler at an outdoor church service.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.