Ford's Challenge Ads Reaching Higher

Ford is showing moxie. In January, it kicked off ads for the Fusion sedan built around an event it held in Washington DC, and supervised by Car & Driver, in which real people scored the AWD Fusion higher than Toyota Camry and Honda Accord for handling, fun-to-drive, etc.

The ads were criticized by some in the blogosphere because Ford cherry-picked the categories in which the Asian rivals beat the Fusion. Also, the Car & Driver participation made it sound like the editors of the magazine participated. Truthfully, it was the sales and advertorial staff who participated.

But the ads were believable, and the details did not make the claims and assertions in the ads untrue. The point of the exercise was to show that people generally approach a Fusion with one set of assumptions, and have different conclusions after they drive it. They also have assumptions about Camry and Accord before they drive it, and often have different feelings after driving the sedans.

According to Ford, attitudes about Camry and Accord fell after driving the cars, while the attitude about Fusion went up. Actual purchase consideration only nudged up. As one Ford exec remarked today…”So much of what ails us is reputation.”

Today, Ford showed us a new stage of the “Challenge” strategy, in which it will regularly take on competition and assumptions in advertising. For the Expedition SUV, its launching a few ads that show male and female workout gurus lampooning how you have to limber up in order to remove the third-row seats of the Chevy Suburban, or to sit in the third row. When it comes to the Expedition, they only limber up their finger to push the electric switch that folds away the third row seat. Corny. But it gets the product message across.

Suburban and Tahoe have the best reputations in the full-size SUV market. And the pair leads the category. But the new Expedition, especially the extended version, to me, seems like a better styled and packaged vehicle than the Chevy SUVs. The interior is first rate, and the third-row seat advantage is clear.

“We aren’t being cocky,” says Ford marketing manager Barry Engle. “But we are being confident.”

Ford is going to look at comparative advertising model by model. It can certainly do it with the Ford F Series truck. Anbd if it wanted to, it could (and I know Im in a minority here) do it with the Focus. The current Focus is a helluva deal, but Ford would have to say something about the $12K-$13K transaction prices, for a nice little car that gets well over 30 mpg in combined driving, including a $3,000 rebate that Nissan Versa and Honda Fit don’t need.

Engle is new to Ford marketing. But he said something today I find encouraging. It’s a simple insight. But sometimes those are the most valuable. He said: “We have to tell stories about how good some of these products are.”

In the case of Fusion and Expedition, the story is being created and told. And that’s fine. The story around Fusion is that this is a very good car. Consumer Reports, in fact, just ranked it ahead of Camry and Accord. But that sure isn’t the perception. It’s a car that far over-achieves the perception, and that is a story that can be told. Ditto Expedition. They might get away with it with the Edge SUV as well, thougb the competition in that segment is fierce with far more diversity of opinion about which models are best.

There is a lot of noise now about how Ford’s “Bold Moves” campaign isn’t doing the job. Indeed, some of the ads have been lame. But they are getting better. Memo to Ford: Don’t scrap Bold Moves. Yes, I know, I criticized it in the beginning for sounding like a slogan for a laxative. But now that you have 18 months or so invested in it, don’t go chasing a whole other copy line. Tinker away. I might suggest keeping the word “Bold” somehow even if you go away from “Bold Moves.”

Witness the way Lexus evolved the “Relentless Pursuit of Perfection” to “The Passionate Pursuit of Perfection.”

The ads are getting better. They are gutsier. And a story about some of Ford’s very good, but under-appreciated, vehicles, could start to bubble up if the company continues to push the ball up the hill without some bright blue-suit ordering the company to change direction again.

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