Ford's Bold Move on the Web? Let America See It as Underdog

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If you're Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co.'s exec VP and president-Ford Americas, right now it might be better to channel James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich than the founding fathers of Ford. Ad Age-reading metal heads (no doubt there are many; one look at Jim Stengel and you know he's wailed "I Am Iron Man" into his Crest tube on occasion) will know Hetfield and Ulrich as the founders of gazillion-selling band Metallica. The band allowed filmmakers to capture all the dysfunctional behavior and experimentation with therapy that went into the making of its 2003 album, "St. Anger," for the documentary "Some Kind of Monster."

In a new online component of its Bold Moves campaign (fordboldmoves.com), a collaboration among JWT, New York and Detroit, Wunderman and Radical Media, Ford is promising a warts-and-all look at its own creative process. A documentary crew led by "Monster" directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky theoretically will capture the inner workings of Ford's reinvention-or slow, painful demise. The story unfolds in 50 weekly episodes, alongside commentary and criticism from the blogosphere and point/counterpoint articles on auto-related issues.

The fact that, in one episode, Fields calls Ford -- the world's fifth-largest company -- "an underdog" is but one of the remarkable things about the site. That Ford is even undertaking this kind of exercise in open-door marketing is the amazing and instructive thing here.

Fascinating stuff.

Or at least it is to me.

Will anyone beyond ad people and auto fetishists care? JWT Chief Creative Officer Ty Montague says there will be different story arcs designed for mass and niche appeal. But more importantly the site serves a cultural function that no ad could perform for a company in Ford's position. "If you're a Ford dealer, you're up against the fact that there has been this conversation going on in the culture outside of advertising about Ford and Ford products, and it hasn't been tremendously positive over the last several years," Montague says. "We needed to create a vehicle for Ford to honestly engage in that conversation."

But in order for Bold Moves to matter in the car world, Ford needs to create a vehicle that you would be caught dead driving. And for the campaign to grab mainstream PR, it really does need boldness, along with authenticity, imperfect characters and messy moments. The campaign also would benefit from more consumer-interaction mechanisms, and Montague says agency and client are working on ways to "let consumers in."

In the end, Ford has final cut, so this is just one giant example of a marketer living or dying by its own will to change. On camera, Fields says: "We need to rip out the BS and have constructive conflict." (Already one wishes he had actually said "bullsh[bleep].") If Ford embraces the spirit of the campaign, and if viewers get a look at the chaos of the creative process, it will be a monumental moment in marketing. If Ford does what every corporation of its ilk is genetically programmed to do (remove the warts and add cheese), it'll be a regrettable footnote.

Here, Metallica offers lessons. Some fans may have been horrified to peek behind the macho metal curtain, but despite the spectacular human frailty on show in "Monster," the band somehow emerged sympathetic. The movie was a success in its own right, and it boosted record sales. But while "St. Anger" ended up with a Grammy, it didn't measure up to Metallica-level sales in the long run for the usual reason: The product just wasn't that good.

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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of 'Creativity' magazine and AdCritic.com. E-mail your big ideas to her at tiezzi@crain.com.
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