Advertising: Ford Turns Back To Owners To Tell Its Story

Ford Motor Co. is sticking with its “Drive One” ad campaign launched in 2007, but infusing a little more emotion into the effort. But don’t expect to see people gushing on camera about their Ford.

The automaker is at an interesting crossroads. It clearly has momentum in the marketplace after being the only one of the three Detroit automakers to escape Chapter 11 and government bailout in 2009. Sales of Ford cars and trucks have fallen by 21% to 1.058 million units in the first nine months of 2009, but the brand’s market share rose to 13.5% from 12.5%. The Ford brand’s drop was less than the nation’s top-selling Toyota brand’s 26% drop in sales.

But there is a feeling inside the company that, despite the terrible economy and resulting calamity in the auto industry, Ford’s time is now.

For the past year, the company has been focused on pitching very rational messaging: fuel economy, quality, technology like its Sync telematics system. Ford’s top marketing executive Jim Farley says the strategy has been to keep giving the public rational reasons they need to consider, care about and buy a Ford.

As Ford’s own research shows, too few people associate the feelings of “cool” and “savvy” with the purchase of a Ford. It has to change that, and accelerate its efforts, if it is going to fully take advantage of the present weakness of GM, Chrysler and even Toyota.

The slogan, “Drive One,” has been met with a mostly tepid reaction from the public. It ties into CEO Alan Mulally’s mantra that he has driven into the company—“One Ford.” That refers to the idea every employee must embrace that it is one worldwide company and brand, not a portfolio of companies the way it used to be: Ford North America, Ford Europe, Ford Asia-Pacific, Jaguar/Land Rover, Volvo.

But there hasn’t been a lot of blood flowing to the campaign, or the slogan itself.

The new push on “Drive One” includes several interesting pieces. First, the automaker will begin this week running what will eventually become at least 45 15-second ads on TV and the Net which show real people engaging and talking about some aspect of a Ford. These ads will be overlaid the usual packet of 30 and 60 second ads for models, as well as dealer advertising.

The look, energy and voice of these 15 second ads seem just right. Ford has momentum both in sales and perception, and these very honest and engaging ads come off as breathing some new wind into the sails.

The people in the ads are real. They were drafted to be in focus groups. They were not asked until after all the video was shot if they would be willing to have the footage used in ads.

The fact that there will be at least 45 different ones running between now and April will keep the effort looking and sounding fresh.

To me, these ads come off as an effective compliment to all the work Ford is doing in social media. The company has made a huge commitment to social media because it believes that it is only going to change its perception with the public “person by person, owner by owner, new model by new model,” says Farley. The ads have the feel and look of amateur video shot and shared on Facebook, almost as if the person talking has set up the camera themselves.

Each message still seems to drive home a very rational benefit: i.e. good power in a hybrid car, a system that tells the owner when to change the oil or if there is anything else that needs tending on the car. Another spot has someone talking about how she likes to change the color of the interior lighting in her car. The blood now flowing to the ads comes from actual owners, which was a good strategy rather than trying to create emotion out of thin air.

Agency Team Detroit produced the campaign. Chief creative officer Toby Barlow said the team had been frustrated for a while because they had a lot of interesting single features in Ford models, like the ability to change interior lighting, that were interesting but not big enough for the focus of an ad. “This format gives us a way to tell the stories about Ford in a compelling and efficient way, and in a genuine way because these are real owners doing the talking.”

Another aspect of the campaign is that dealers will give $20 to local schools, up to $6,000, for each test drive during this period. More and more, companies are looking to tie in a social responsibility element to any advertising effort. This seems to be timely as local communities’ tax bases have been hit hard by unemployment and falling property values.

There was a time when Ford would have, after a year or so, scrapped an ad strategy and slogan if it didn’t feel like it was pulling eyeballs and wallets. The new Ford seems to be more disciplined than that; realizing where the shortcomings of the ad strategy were and fixing them rather than scrapping the whole thing, and starting over.

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