The trick now is to transfer that sort of consumer focus to the company's evolving global structure.
It's a big challenge, and one that will go a long way in determining the success of Chairman Alex Trotman's Ford 2000, an effort to maximize global resources by merging automotive operations worldwide and creating five vehicle centers to develop all cars and trucks.
The risk is that a global product planning strategy will produce compromised vehicles that aren't really right for a lot of the markets where they will be sold.
Preventing that will require the sort of intensive customer input that went into the redesign of the Continental, a luxury sedan that began reaching dealers late in December.
"The reorganization doesn't complicate the process of finding out the voice of the customer, but it may make it more complicated to satisfy," said Fred Simon, program manager for the Continental. "Now, in addition to looking at the differences between someone in California and a consumer in Boston, you have to add in the differences involved with someone in another country."
For the Continental, Ford went so far as sending groups of engineers to observe market research sessions conducted in places like Dallas, New York, Chicago, Florida and California. After the focus groups ended, the engineers met in follow-ups with individual consumers to better understand the nuances of how they view luxury, Mr. Simon said.
As a result, "team members not only had facts, they had the faces of customers in mind," Mr. Simon said.
He cited one woman in her mid-40s who said during the focus group that comfort was an important part of luxury.
"If you stop there, you would think she was talking about the seats," Mr. Simon said. But in the follow-up, it turned out the woman really was talking about the psychological comfort of driving to a club in a car that she knew "commanded respect."
The research persuaded Ford that being able to personalize a car would add to an owner's sense of luxury. That led Ford to engineer a car with a sophisticated electronics system that allows two drivers to each set 12 different features to their own tastes.
The programming preferences involve features such as steering effort, ride firmness, seat and mirror positions, radio station settings and instrument lighting intensity. Each driver can determine things like whether outside rearview mirrors will tilt down whenever the car is put in reverse, or whether doors should automatically lock when the car is shifted into gear.
The personalization is featured in one of the three upcoming introductory commercials by Young & Rubicam, Detroit, which break Jan. 26. The spot shows a well-dressed young man getting into a Continental and adjusting the radio, seat and mirrors. He turns out to be a valet, who returns the car to its original settings by pushing a single button just before he turns the key over to the woman owner.
One of the other launch spots, to be shown Jan. 29 during the Super Bowl, shows the car on a platform balanced on a pinnacle, to convey the idea that the car is "the perfect balance of luxury and technology."
The third spot suggests both luxury and handling attributes, by showing the Continental maneuvering through a slalom course of Ming dynasty vases.
Beyond creating advertising, Y&R is increasing its involvement in Lincoln-Mercury's product development processes.
For instance, the agency helped determine target customer profiles for the Continental focus groups, and it recently brought in David Hillburn as exec VP-marketing and strategic planning. A former West Coast consultant who worked with Asian car importers, Mr. Hillburn will help with long-term strategic thinking and brand-image development, said Keith Magee, VP-general manager, Lincoln-Mercury.
Y&R also is expected to assign staff members to Ford's five vehicle development centers, four in the U.S. and one in Europe. Ford's various sales and marketing units also will be represented.
"There will be at least one marketing person on each [product development] team, with support from marketing research," said Ben Lever III, Lincoln-Mercury general marketing manager.
Mr. Magee said one goal of Ford 2000 is "to provide Lincoln-Mercury with more differentiation in its product lineup, involving either styling differences or, in some cases, different platforms." That can be achieved because it will be more cost-efficient to develop product features that can be shared across a number of markets, he said.