This is not a sports car, it's a marketing vehicle

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It won't hit showrooms until summer, but Ford Motor Co. is already getting amazing marketing mileage from the sleek Ford GT. The super-hot supercar has generated reams of publicity and turned Ford's affordable, conservative image on its ear-exactly the auto giant's intention.

The 500-horsepower, street-legal car generated a standing ovation from employees last year at its unveiling and has since received a plethora of coverage and endorsements in auto enthusiast titles. "We couldn't have written those articles any better ourselves," said Martin Collins, general marketing manager of the division.

Consider this rave from Motor Trend: "The GT is more than just a sports car. It's a high-speed, high-profile declaration that the Ford Motor Co. is once again out to take on the world's best."

It clearly won't be a moneymaker. Ford plans to produce only 3,500 of the $139,995 GTs over two model years for the U.S. market. "We don't expect to lose money on GT," Chairman-CEO William Clay Ford Jr. told Automotive News last year, "but frankly none of us are going to retire on GT either."

Instead, the GT has a greater purpose, to "raise the image of all our other products," said Mr. Collins.

That's why Ford made a seemingly inefficient media buy for a low-volume car, spending a bundle to advertise the GT with 60-second spot in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXVIII. In the spot, from WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, Detroit, the car careens around 15 turns on a track and hits speeds in excess of 140 mph as the voice-over asks, "In what gear do you realize that a car is everything it is supposed to be? In what gear do you know nothing can catch you? In what gear do you know it is the one?" A 30-second spot that aired in the pre-game show pictured the car on a turntable.

a place on `idol'

The 60-second spot, in fact, will air only up to 15 times, said Rich Stoddart, marketing communications manager of Ford division. The spots will run during the Ford Championship at Doral golf broadcast on NBC next month and the finals of "American Idol" in May on Fox, in which Ford Division is a sponsor. In another high-profile media buy, a print ad for the racer also appears in Time Inc.'s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

The GT ads carry the tagline that says it all about Ford's strategy: "The pace car for an entire company."

Mr. Stoddart said the theme was chosen because the car was built by the same people at Ford who "share the same passion but work on high-volume cars, SUVs and trucks." Mr. Collins added the GT "puts a little bounce back into everybody's step" at Ford.

The car can indeed provide "internal morale and bragging rights within the company," said Jeff Brodoski, an analyst at J.D. Power & Associates, who projected Ford executives, Ford dealers and Ford suppliers would buy the majority of the GTs.

Whether Ford can translate the GT momentum into sales of other models is another question. The sports car's return in 2004 marks the start of a slew of new models from Ford, which is calling 2004 "the year of the car." The brand's car sales slipped in recent years after it shifted its main focus to pickups and sport utilities. Ford Motor is in the midst of a five-year revitalization plan after a combined $6.4 billion loss in 2001 and 2002. For 2003, Ford posted its first profit since 2000 with $495 million in net income globally.

`a blip'

The marketer will launch the updated Focus this spring, the all-new Five Hundred sedan this summer to replace the Taurus, and the redone 2005 Mustang this fall.

While the GT, which Mr. Brodski called "an engineering accomplishment," is likely to generate traffic at Ford dealerships, it won't necessarily close a sale of other brands. GT "will pretty much be a blip on the radar screen," he predicted, noting it will be difficult to tie the GT to actual sales of other Ford Motor products.

Art Spinella, VP of auto consultancy CNW Marketing/Research, said the GT doesn't match the generally conservative, loyal buyer of Ford models "because performance isn't typically what they're looking for." He said the best "halo" cars are used as building blocks for a brand and its positioning, which is why he said Chrysler Group's $30,000-plus Plymouth Prowler roadster was a misfit for that affordable brand in the 1990s. Neither Plymouth nor Prowler survived.

a better idea

But Ford clearly thinks it has a better idea. When Bill Ford announced in a February 2002 press conference that the automaker would build the sports car, he indicated it would be just the start of an image overhaul for the company. "Our revitalization plan is centered on new products. The company that delivers the best cars and trucks wins and we're going to win. I can't think of a better symbol of that winning attitude than the GT40." His announcement came in the wake of the automaker's $5 billion-plus loss in 2001 and thousands of pending layoffs.

The GT has a storied history at Ford. In the mid-1960s, Henry Ford II, then chairman, ordered the development of the original GT to compete against Ferrari in racing after the Italian carmaker turned down his offer to buy the company. The Ford GT shook the racing world when it won the Twenty-Four Hours of LeMans in 1966, '67 and '68.

The brand's current iteration is also inviting comparisons to Ferrari. A test driver reported in the January Car and Driver said that the GT can go from 0 to 60 mph in 3.3 seconds, besting the $193,000 Ferrari Challenge Stradale, which limped along at 4 seconds.

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