Auto Marketers Gas Up For World Car Drive But Are Ford And Others Just Spinning Their Wheels?

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Dick Van House's new job is straightforward enough: Figure out the desires of automotive customers in 200 countries. Translate that into a global product plan that enables Ford Motor Co. to become more efficient, and at the same time fill the needs of individual markets.

In short: Produce globally, market locally.

This gargantuan task falls to Mr. Van House, Ford's Automotive Operations Executive Director-Worldwide Marketing Plans and Strategy charged with Ford's transformation of its worldwide automotive business, a project dubbed Ford 2000.

But Mr. Van House, based in Dearborn, Mich., isn't alone. His counterparts at automakers from Tokyo to Wolfsburg are wrestling with the same problems as competition becomes an increasingly global affair.

The problem is this: While a desire for cost savings drives the idea of global automobiles, the danger is that the resulting vehicles will be too compromised to appeal to specific markets.

Mr. Van House, for one, says that's opening up a bigger role for marketing input right from the beginning of the product development process.

"In all honesty, we haven't paid enough attention to customer wants," he said. "This new process is going to cause us to look in more depth at the various markets around the world and the needs of customers."

"You can't force globalization on people," said Professor Garel Rhys, director of the Center for Automotive Industry Research at University of Wales, in Cardiff, U.K. "You have to persuade [consumers] to take on that product, and that is where marketing comes in."

Ignoring local marketing input is a sure way to imperil an automaker's international aspirations.

Just ask Germany's Volkswagen AG, which operated for years with the philosophy that one car was good enough for all the world. For years, VW marketing executives in the U.S. tried in vain to get the company to include items like cupholders and American-style lever seatback releases in cars destined for their market.

VW's financial crisis forced a rethinking. Last October, VW Group Chairman Ferdinand Piech said VW would scrap its old policy in favor of market-specific designs.

The new attitude already is showing up in the decision to make a modern version of its classic Beetle, based on the Concept 1 vehicle shown at 1994 auto shows. The vehicle will be aimed primarily at the North American market beginning in 1998 or 1999.

When marketers look for an example of how to successfully factor local marketing input into global product plans, they often study Japan.

"Toyota will sell a car like Corolla throughout the world that has a lot of common systems but does have the uniqueness each market demands," Ford's Mr. Van House said.

In contrast, "[Ford] tended to do two or three Corolla-type cars rather than one. We have an Escort in the U.S., a different Escort in Europe and other vehicles that are Mazda-based in Europe," he added.

Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Corp. have marketing, production, sales and research and development facilities outside Japan. But even in Japan, the realities of yen appreciation and Japan's economic recession are forcing adjustments.

Nissan, for example, recently determined it can't afford to build, design and market completely separate models like the Q45 and J30 for the U.S. Infiniti line. Instead, future Infiniti models will be variations of cars designed for affluent Japanese customers as well as U.S. buyers.

"During the late '80s, we were at the peak of localized production," said Shingo Suzuki, a staffer in Nissan's Product and Market Strategy office. "After the bubble burst, and the yen appreciated, we now know this is no longer cost efficient."

As a marketing strategist, Mr. Suzuki said his office is involved in new product development from the early stages.

"We look at the market requirements of Japan, the U.S. and Europe and we see which areas have overlap," he said.

"Then the export, research and development and accounting departments work to decide which car will be manufactured in each market. Our office liaises with our counterparts in North America, for example, to discuss who our target customer is and what the vehicle specifications are. We don't make detailed decisions, we make guidelines which the design people use to start their work."

Tadaoki Ishikawa, former marketing director at Toyota Motor Sales USA, said market input enters early in product development. For example, the marketing department from Toyota's Taiwan office visited U.S. offices to state their market requirements for the Camrys that would be sold in Taiwan and assembled in the U.S.

"Then, rather than redevelop for each market, we modify-but not change completely," Mr. Ishikawa said. "We need to think about how to commonize even when we are in different markets."

France's Renault has taken a middle road between developing a world car and one for a single market, because more than 90% of the company's $32 billion in sales are generated in Europe.

Minor alterations-such as better air conditioning in southern markets and stronger heaters in the Nordic countries-are made, but the body, the engines, transmissions and chassis are identical.

For Ford, development of the Mondeo for Europe and its sister cars, the Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique for the U.S., was the precursor for the Ford 2000 reorganization.

Introduced in 1993, the Ford Mondeo has since become the best-selling car in its class (family-sized four and five door cars) in Europe with a 3.2% share of the total 11 million European car market for the first 11 months of 1994.

The Mondeo is produced in Genk, Belgium, and is sold in 76 countries around the world, with 94.1% of its unit sales coming in Europe. That's not to say it's not successful as a world car, given different launch times and a different marketing schedule around the world.

Based on the same chassis design, the Contour and Mystique are built in the U.S. and introduced there in September 1994.

Yet the cars are sold under different brand names and accordingly have different positionings and agencies. J. Walter Thompson creates advertising for the Lincoln Contour and Young & Rubicam for the Mercury Mystique. Mondeo advertising is handled by Y&R in Frankfurt, and Ogilvy & Mather, London, has the Mondeo account for the rest of Europe.

The Mondeo varies slightly in different markets, said Steve Parker, marketing communications manager for Ford in Europe. "A Mondeo in Spain is the same as the Mondeo you buy in Norway. You might find that one country has an air conditioner standard and one has a sun roof as standard."

The Mondeo's image also varies from market to market, since the economies of scale for producing a world car don't carry over into positioning. In Italy, for example, where the Mondeo competes with Fiat, the Mondeo is seen as an upmarket car. But in Germany, where the Mondeo competes with Mercedes and BMW, Ford uses quotes from car industry publications to make the Mondeo appear more upscale.

To foster more vehicles that can be sold around the world, Ford is creating five vehicle program centers to develop all cars and trucks. Small front-wheel-drive cars will be developed at a center split between Ford facilities in the U.K. and Germany. The other four car and truck centers will be located in the U.S.

Mr. Van House's multi-national staff of 80 people, located in the five vehicle centers, will be the interface between the markets and the product development teams. "Our main task is going to be to gather the `voice of the customer' from all these markets," he said.

The first step will be to get input from Ford marketing staff already in the markets.

"In addition, we'll spend as much time as we can visiting markets, talking to people, observing, and conducting market research," Mr. Van House said. The new and existing data are gathered, studied and then taken back into the vehicle centers to turn customer wants into product description.

That includes research in emerging markets such as China and India.

"In a lot of these markets that we don't know anything about, we're doing a lot of research to find out the needs of people and figure out what kind of products we should be considering," Mr. Van House said. "Exotic engine electronics may be too costly to sell in some of these developing countries."

Skeptics question whether Ford's products will become too homogenized as the global product plan comes together over the next several years.

"One of my main roles is to not let that happen, not develop vehicles based on the average," Mr. Van House said.

"Our vision is that this will allow us to develop products with common underbodies and chassis, but allow us to get more uniqueness than in the past by modifying for local markets."

Karen Anhalt, Bruce Crumley, Dagmar Mussey, Charles Siler and Ivy Silverman contributed to this story.

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