Ford packs a patriotic punch as election nears and U.S. production ramps up
Ford Motor Co. won’t be on the ballot in November. But in a new campaign, the automaker is draping itself in patriotism as much as any candidate running this year. New ads tout the 117-year-old company’s American heritage, U.S. manufacturing footprint and job-creation efforts in a bid to separate itself from Chevrolet, Jeep, Ram and other brands.
The campaign from Wieden+Kennedy comes as the automaker today reveals plans to invest $700 million for U.S. manufacturing of its F-series pickup truck, the top-selling vehicle in the U.S. Spending includes upgrades at a plant in Dearborn, Michigan that will equip it to build the first-ever all-electric F-150 by mid-2022. In a press briefing on Wednesday previewing the announcement, officials boasted that the investment would create 300 jobs at the company’s historic Rouge Center, where components for the Model T were once made.
“We pay a price for keeping such a significant portion of our manufacturing here in the U.S.,” Kumar Galhotra, president of Ford’s Americas and International Markets Group, told reporters, alluding to economic factors that often make overseas assembly cheaper. “But it is a choice we make, because we believe in American workers and the value of a strong American manufacturing base.”
The campaign, voiced by Bryan Cranston, includes one ad called “Built for America” that has lines and scenes reminiscent of political ads. “We’ve seen tough times, but we’ve learned we are better when we come together,” Cranston says at one point. Weaving together scenes from factories, American homes and the open road, the spot touts the company as “employing more U.S. hourly workers than any other automaker,” as well as “assembling more vehicles in America than any other automaker.” Another spot will feature Ford trucks used by first responders.
The campaign lands as the U.S. presidential election season heats up—with themes of job creation and American manufacturing likely to become a bigger part of the national conversation, especially in Rust Belt states. Donald Trump in his first term has often weighed in on the car industry, including occasionally scolding General Motors and Ford over Mexican manufacturing. In 2017, Ford scrapped a planned factory south of the border amid criticism from the president, although executives cited other reasons for the move, like declining demand for small cars that would have been made at the facility.
In an interview this week, Ford’s U.S. Director of Marketing Matt VanDyke downplayed any political angle for the new campaign, but suggested the ads are partly meant to seize on the U.S. manufacturing edge the automaker has over its rivals, including GM. “It’s certainly not a partisan campaign—we did not design it from that perspective whatsoever,” he said. “It’s really a campaign talking about company values, and values that have been longstanding for 100 years, no matter whether Republicans or Democrats are in the office.”
“We have research that shows that customers feel like Ford is the most American automaker based on our manufacturing plant footprint, based on our number of American workers and based on our history,” VanDyke added, alluding to company efforts like building airplanes during World War II.
Ford does have a leg up on its rivals, according to third-party data on U.S. manufacturing. The company in 2020 has made 1.75 vehicles here, compared with 1.5 million for General Motors and about 1 million each for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Toyota, according to data from global consulting firm AlixPartners.
But whether that matters much to buyers is another question. “People generally don’t care where their vehicles come from,” says Autotrader analyst Michelle Krebs.
Mark Wakefield, a managing director at AlixParters who works on the auto industry, says price and value remain the top priority for buyers. While manufacturing origin is rarely a motivator, it can cause a small percentage of buyers to rule out a purchase, he says.
Still, there are signs that consumers are feeling more patriotic generally, which could work in Ford’s favor.
Brand Keys, which specializes in customer loyalty and engagement research, surveys consumers annually on the topic, and found in its most recent report released last month that all age groups are reporting an uptick in feeling “extremely” or “very” patriotic. Not surprisingly, older age groups feel the most patriotic, with 92 percent of Baby Boomers calling themselves extremely or very patriotic. But so did 85 percent of millennials (up 15 points from last year) and 59 percent of Gen Z (up 9 points). The survey ranked Jeep as the most patriotic brand in America, followed by Amazon and Walmart. Ford came in at No. 7, one spot ahead of Fox News.
Consumers are also expecting companies to do more to project their values, experts repeatedly say—which can come in patriotic or non-patriotic forms. On that score, Ford has gained positive PR from moves like using its plants to make ventilators, personal protective equipment and face shields during the pandemic.
Peter Berg, the director known for films like “Friday Night Lights,” recently made a short documentary called “On the Line” about Ford’s efforts. The director approached the automaker about the project and the company agreed and commissioned the project, according to the Detroit Free Press.