Ford's Super Bowl Ad Is About a Lot More Than Car Sales

90-Second Ad Has a Wider Transportation Theme

Published On
Jan 31, 2017

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Ford for months has been touting itself as a mobility provider whose business extends beyond selling vehicles and into services such as ride-sharing and bike-sharing. But the automaker has mostly confined the marketing of this new vision to digital and public relations efforts -- until now.

With a 90-second Super Bowl ad that will air right before kick-off, the company will take its message onto advertising's biggest -- and most expensive -- stage. The ad, which was released today, touts Ford's burgeoning ride-sharing and bike sharing services, while also plugging self-driving cars that are still under development. The agency behind the spot is WPP's dedicated Ford shop, Global Team Blue.

"This is the first time we've done it in TV," Chantel Lenard, Ford's director for U.S. marketing, said in an interview about the broader mobility push.

"Because we have this unique opportunity with the Super Bowl with 90 seconds to tell the story, we think it's a great way to be able to connect it with this idea of helping people move freely in life. Because that is really what these solutions are about -- giving different ways to make people's lives easier as transportation frankly becomes more challenging in some places with congestion and other issues we are trying to solve."

The ad buy -- which was first reported by Automotive News on Saturday -- marks the first time since 2014 that Ford has run a national Super Bowl ad. That spot used James Franco and Rob Riggle to promote the Fusion. The commercial aired in the pre-kick pod, just like this year's ad. While that slot had traditionally been considered a pre-game buy, Ad Age now categorizes ads that run between the coin toss and kickoff as Super Bowl buys because of the value that marketers place on the real estate.

"We think it works very well for us because people are so engaged at that moment," Ms. Lenard said. Viewers "are ready for the game to start. Everyone is focused. You have a massive audience." She added: "Later in the game sometimes you end up with a blowout situation and you might lose some of that audience."

Ford last ran an in-game spot (after kickoff) in 2013 for its Lincoln brand.

This year's ad begins by showing people getting stuck in annoying daily living situations, like a man stuck on a roof after a ladder falls and a kid whose shirt gets stuck over his head as he is trying to pull it off. Ford then spotlights its vehicles and services as a means to help people get unstuck from sticky transportation situations. For instance, one driver is shown using in-vehicle navigation system to escape gridlock, while another scene shows a Ford truck pulling a car that is stuck in the snow.

One scene shows a quick glimpse of a Ford-branded bike. That is a reference to a Ford-backed bike-sharing program currently available in the Bay Area via a partnership with Motive, which is a bike-sharing consulting provider.

Another scene in the ad shows a Ford-branded van shuttle. Ford late last year announced an acquisition of Chariot, a San Francisco-based crowd-sourced shuttle service. Ford expects to expand the service beyond San Francisco and Austin to at least six additional markets this year, according to the company.

The ad's soundtrack is "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" by Nina Simone.

While the ad shows some vehicles that are available for sale today, the spot is far from a sales pitch. It is more of a corporate branding play. Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for AutoTrader, said "the focus at Ford has been not only on selling vehicles for today, but setting the company up as a mobility company of the future. So it's not surprising that they would want to send that message loud and clear to a huge group of people."

She added the most effective Super Bowl ads for automakers are "those that tell the brand story. What Ford is definitely trying to do is shift its brand story to include mobility solutions for the future."

Ford will complement the TV ad with digital extensions that feature Ford employees. One video spotlights Victoria Schein, a 23-year-old Ford research engineer who holds nine patents. She works at Ford's research and innovation center in Silicon Valley that opened in 2015.

On TV, Ford plans to continue running versions of the Super Bowl ad throughout the year, including during the Grammy's, Ms. Lenard said.

Ford released the Super Bowl spot today as it opens an "interactive brand experience studio" called FordHub at Westfield World Trade Center in New York City. Ford is not selling anything at the hub. Instead it is an experiential marketing effort. It shows how "Ford's expansion to an auto and a mobility company is helping change the way the world moves," according to a statement.

Installations include a "mobility map" that includes a dashboard of real-time traffic information for New York City commuters, including for trains and ferries. The hub also touts Ford's "City of Tomorrow" vision. The initiative is aimed at showing how "autonomous and electric vehicles, ride-sharing and ride-hailing and connected vehicles" interact with urban infrastructure and create a transportation ecosystem," according to a press release issued earlier this year on the City of Tomorrow.