Ford faces tough new model test

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Armed with new and redone models, Ford Division President Steve Lyons boldly predicts the brand will sell 3 million vehicles this year, 200,000 more units than in 2003, a 7% increase. The figure includes 912,000 F-150 full-size pickups, Ford Motor Co.'s best-selling model launched last September.

Rich Stoddart, marketing communications manager of Ford Motor's biggest division, says he knows he must nail all eight of the model launches he has this year in about nine months.

"We know how to do this. We just did it for the F-150," Mr. Stoddart says, calling it the most successful launch of any product he's ever worked on.

The pickup's debut included a concert tour sponsorship of country music star Toby Keith, who drove on stage in a special F-150 that transformed into part of the stage, plus a sweepstakes that offered an F-150 for life.

Another major challenge is getting the message out that Ford products have improved quality and reliability. The brand is apparently still tainted by the widespread publicity from the 2000 Firestone tire debacle involving Ford's popular Explorer sport-utility vehicle.

PERCEPTIONS HURT FORD

"Quality perception is really hurting them," Art Spinella, VP of auto consultancy CNW Marketing/Research, says of the Ford brand. Another problem, he states, is "a lot of people think Ford's styling is not up to date." CNW's consumer research also revealed that the percentage of shoppers who put Ford on their list and then buy the brand slipped to 36% in 2003 from 45% in 2000.

"The truth is our quality is better, our dependability is improving and cost is being driven out of the equation, yet consumers are not giving us credit for it," Mr. Stoddart says, pointing to third-party research that backs up his claims. He says the sales success so far for the new F-150 shows Ford has gotten its act together. Ford has started to see perception improvements.

However, sales of the Ford brand in first quarter 2004 slipped 2.1% from a year ago to 667,886 vehicles. Meanwhile, sales of the hot F-150 have increased by double digits every month since its introduction last September-March 2004 sales were up 18% to 80,056 units.

Mr. Stoddart says he hasn't finalized his tactics for key models arriving this fall, including the redone Mustang, the all-new Five Hundred sedan, first hybrid-engine Escape SUV and all-new Freestyle wagon.

ONLINE, DIRECT MAIL PUSH

Ford will be "more aggressive than ever" online, with direct mail also playing a bigger role. His ad budget is increasing by 10% this year; the brand spent $793 million in 2003, down 4.9% from '02, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

Ford is creating some hoopla for the 40th anniversary of its Mustang. The push includes a new print ad breaking in 24 monthlies and weeklies this month. Ford, as sponsor of a celebration in Nashville April 15-18 organized by the Mustang Club of America, is bringing in historic Mustangs. Ford tapped Latcha & Associates, Troy, Mich., to create a poster for the pony car's milestone in Nashville.

Ford won't let up on advertising for the F-150 this year. Look for the automaker to use some of the same tactics for its other upcoming launches that it employed with the F-150. Those included online roadblocks on portal home pages and a sweepstakes promoted partly via a CD by Mr. Keith.

As part of this spring's launch of the Focus ST, a new performance model, Ford integrated its sponsorship deal with Fox's "American Idol" to an online contest. Consumers are voting online at idolonfox.com through May 12 for the best homemade music video from three songs Ford licensed. The winner gets a Focus ST, a trip to Los Angeles and an appearance on the TV show.

Mr. Stoddart believes Ford advertising can communicate quality without stating it, and points to the ongoing F-150 campaign from WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit. Launch ads for upcoming models will discuss what's different about the products and how they set new standards in their segments.

"You can't fake your way through this," he says. "The best product wins."

Todd Turner, president of consultancy CarConcepts, predicts the Ford brand is poised for a comeback.

Ford, he says, has invested in new models, "recognizing this is a product game. Ford has a lot of product coming through their pipeline."

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