Ford's Uphill Battle Selling Quality

Ford is about to kick off a new ad campaign, themed, “Ford. Drive One.”

One of the cornerstone pieces of information back-stopping the campaign is a report from RDA Group of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. that says Ford’s quality as reported by customers in the first 90 days of ownership, is statistically equal to Honda and Toyota.

While RDA does not pack the credibility with car shoppers as Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates (JDP is owned by BusinessWeek parent McGraw-Hill), the findings do not differ wildly from CR’s and JDP’s most recent rankings.

And Ford says it’s quality rating has gone up 8% since last year as measured by RDA.

In Power’s 2007 Initial Quality Study, which also tracks problems reported by customers in the first 90 days, Ford scored 120 problems per 100 vehicles. That was good enough for tenth in the ranking, and behind Toyota at 112 per 100 vehicles and Honda at 108 problems per 100. Ford’s Lincoln brand actually scored third best at 100 problems per 100. Mercury, the vehicles of which are mechanically identical to Ford vehicles, scored 113 problems per 100. Such narrow differences are pretty statistically inconsequential.

J.D. Power’s 2008 rankings come out in June.

Ford’s problem, like GM’s, though, is narrowing the perception gap between Detroit brands and Toyota and Honda. Those Japanese brands have been at or near the top of Power’s ranking for years. And they have the advantage of being a kind of default brand for people who have felt burned by poor quality Detroit, Korean or even German brands.

Both companies say changing perception to match current reality about quality is there most perplexing problems

I recently got a call from a friend in New Jersey who wanted my counsel on buying a new car. Ready to trade in a 2000 Buick Century, and having had a 1990s Taurus before that, they wanted to know about Kias because they know a Kia dealer. I talked to them about the Honda Accord, as well as the new Chevy Malibu, the Ford Fusion and Edge and the Toyota Corolla. In a subsequent e-mail, my friend told me his wife said emphatically, “No More American Cars!.”

That’s a perception problem when a couple in their 60s coming off a Buick and a Ford feel better about a Kia than a new Ford or Chevy.

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